Most mystery writers will tell you that the best way to think of a good mystery story is to start with the ending and work your way back. Question stories are surely written the exact opposite way. For this reason they can be fairly frustrating, especially in the hands of a lesser writer who is simply using the “question story” format to cover up the fact that he/she couldn’t think of a suitable payoff for their set-up. Despite some grievances I had with Lost, I’d say the series was a great example of how to best utilize the question story format. YellowBrickRoad is not as effective or cleverly woven as Lost, but it is well-done and manages to milk a lot from the little it has to work with.
The film opens with some title cards ominously setting up the film’s big “question.”
In the Fall of 1940, the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire walked together up a winding mountain trail and into the wilderness. Without warning, they left behind everything: their homes, their clothes, and their money. The only clue where they went was a single word etched into stone near the forest’s edge: YELLOWBRICKROAD.
A search party eventually discovered the remains of nearly half of Friar’s evacuees. Many had frozen to death. Others were cruelly and mysteriously slaughtered. Most were never found.
In the present, Ted (Michael Laurino) and his wife, Melissa (Anessa Ramsey), two academics, have long wanted to write a book about the Friar disappearance. When government documents revealing the coordinates of the YellowBrickRoad are de-classified, the two assemble a team to follow the same path the Friar residents did in 1940 and try to get some answers. Their team is made up of a psychologist, Walter (Alex Draper), two mapmakers, Erin (Cassidy Freeman) and Daryl (Clark Freeman), a park ranger (Sam Elmore), an intern (Tara Giordano), and a Friar resident who begs to come along on the journey, offering to reveal the true head of the trail after the coordinates Ted received from the government prove incorrect. After hiking for several days weird things start to happen. They find a hat and coat from the time period the original residents went missing; yet both items look brand new. Then the music begins playing – old big band tunes, heard echoing through the woods. They all hear it and it never seems to stop playing. They also can’t tell where the music is coming from. It is omnipresent. Soon they all begin to act strangely. Even violent. Yet they keep plunging north along the trail. When the mapmakers start adding up the data they’ve been recording they find that their numbers no longer make sense if they point their sights south. They seem to be walking both father and shorter than the northward numbers indicate. In-fighting happens. Supplies start to run out. The music gets louder. People go bonkers.
YellowBrickRoad has many outward similarities to The Blair Witch Project: characters are documenting their attempt to uncover a supernatural small-town mystery, the whole movie is in the woods, and there is very little in the way of plot; the movie is largely just people arguing about the weird shit that’s happening to them. When I first heard the concept of YellowBrickRoad I was sure it was going to be using the incredibly tired found-footage gimmick. It frankly seemed a natural fit. As someone who hates the found-footage shtick (or any video camera POV device), I am happy to report that YellowBrickRoad is told the old fashioned third-party way.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that no questions are answered in YellowBrickRoad. Any even remotely experienced filmgoer will realize this by the film’s mid-point, and those who don’t will surely be frustrated by the ending, so I think I’m doing you and the film a favor by giving the heads up. Beyond this though, I don’t want to reveal any of the events of the film. The plot is sparse and the less you know about how things unfold the better. Like Lost fans would say, this film isn’t about the mystery, it’s about the characters – how they interact and react. While I can’t say any of the performances lingered in my mind afterwards, they are uniformly solid, leaning towards very good. I would say the same for the script. The nature of the film requires people to act somewhat illogically at times, but in classic “question story” form, YellowBrickRoad simply makes this part of the film’s surreal weirdness – our characters are gettin’ weird on us. The film affects a naturalistic tone, which at times serves it very well (upping the friction with the strange events), but also hurts it at times (making the illogical decisions necessitated to keep the story moving forward feel disingenuous a few times). But, given the smallness of the production, the acting is all extremely top-notch.
One aspect of the film that simply didn’t work for me was the leitmotif of Wizard of Oz symbolism and referencing (such as a dead body mysteriously discovered hanging in the same position the Scarecrow is when Dorothy first meets him). As allegory, it didn’t serve to deepen my understanding or alter my interpretation of the story, so it came off simply as a gimmick. Worse, it pulled me from the realism of the film. I am fully willing to accept a Lovecraftian evil that is wholly unknowable, but having this unknowable evil force be into Wizard of Oz references was more than I was willing to grant the film. I could see the argument being made that the Oz bits were merely projections of our characters thoughts, but the evidence in the film doesn’t support that; there should have been more projections, unrelated to Oz, if this was the case. In this general area, as a “question story,” YellowBrickRoad did not provide enough clues for me to fully enjoy it as much as I wanted. I’m more than happy to put together pieces of a film’s puzzle, assembling it on my own and maybe leaving me with a few places up for my own interpretation, but I refuse to do a film’s work for it. At its conclusion, YellowBrickRoad essentially asks you to paint your own picture, but doesn’t provide enough paint.
Though the film’s narrative left me wanting, the film has some interesting bits and is very professionally done. Considering that YellowBrickRoad is the first feature outing for the writing/directing team of Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton, it shows a lot of promise for the two. Nothing in the film wowed me, but I think these two are worth keeping an eye on. Next time I hope they tackle something with a little more meat on its bones.