‘He Went That Way’ Review: A Serial Killer, A Drifter, and His Monkey Get Into a Car…

Like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” before it, “He Went That Way” tells the story of an iconic performer struggling to adapt to changing public tastes. Unlike those films, the performer in question is a monkey named Spanky.

In the late 1950s, Spanky dominated the variety show circuit with his mastery of the beloved midcentury comedy trope known as “monkeys doing things that monkeys don’t typically do.” But in a post-Beatles America in 1964, family-friendly chimp hijinks just aren’t enough to impress the Ed Sullivans and Perry Comos of the world. The monkey that was once the most popular TV star in America is now scrounging for gigs.

Nobody has paid a steeper price for Spanky’s fall from grace more than his handler, Jim (Zachary Quinto). A middle-aged man who broke one of the cardinal rules of finance (“Never put 100 percent of your resources into a monkey-centric family entertainment act”), he’s now cruising Route 66 in a car he can barely afford to repair with a monkey he can barely afford to feed. But the road is not without its perks — he gets to avoid his wife that he barely speaks to and his creepy priest brother who owes him a ton of cash.

Aside from the whole “staking his future on the idea that monkeys will never go out of style” thing, Jim is a pretty risk-averse guy. But when he sees a devastatingly handsome 19-year-old hitching a ride, he throws caution into the wind and picks him up. His new travel buddy Bobby (Jacob Elordi) claims that he’s heading for Chicago to reconnect with an old girlfriend — a narrative that begins to fall apart when he pulls a gun on Jim.

As it turns out, Bobby didn’t just want a to accompany Jim to Chicago — he wanted to rob and most likely murder him. It’s kind of his thing. The sociopathic teenager lurks the backroads of America in search of free rides, only to brutally kill anyone who shows him a hint of generosity. He takes Jim’s wallet and his prized ring — and he still has the guts to ask for a lift to Chicago.

He offers Jim a dangerous bargain: safe passage to the Windy City in exchange for the return of his jewelry and the safety of his chimp. Given that Jim has just lost virtually everything he has in this world, he has little choice but to go along. What follows is a tense cross-country drive that’s underscored by the knowledge that Bobby could kill Jim (and Spanky) at any time. Bobby keeps playing psychotic games with Jim’s mind only to pause and pursue a genuine connection with him — before reverting back to psychological torture at the drop of a hat. As the two men get to know each other, the film shifts its focus so sharply towards their relationship that it’s almost startling when you remember that there’s a monkey involved.

Director Jeffrey Darling’s neon-tinged rendering of roadside America is sumptuous to look at, and Elordi exudes the movie star gravitas that Bobby needs to lull Jim into his trap. But the relationship between the two men is just never fleshed out enough to be convincing. We’re meant to believe that Bobby’s willingness to overcome his sadistic nature is the result of some kind of inexplicable bond between the two men, but the connection never quite materializes in a satisfactory way.

A pile of indie film stock tropes — long shots of cigarettes being lit, a guy howling with joy out the window while driving at sunset, and the dreaded “Most of This Actually Happened” title card — aren’t enough to salvage a competent but emotionally thin story.

But if nothing else, “He Went That Way” deserves credit for being the most serious effort at reviving the monkey hijinks genre that the festival circuit has seen in years. For all of the progress that America has enjoyed since 1964, one metric that we have undeniably lost ground on is “quantity of monkey movies released per year.” Spanky might be criminally underused, but his mere presence is a step in the right direction. If Darling’s film can get the ball rolling on an arthouse ape chase renaissance, all of its sins will be forgiven.

Grade: B-

“He Went That Way” premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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