In his book-length interview with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock attributes the failure of “I Confess” to the audience’s inability to accept the film’s central premise — a priest accused of murder refuses to speak up with information that would clear his name because it would mean violating the sanctity of the confessional. As Hitchcock says, “You may feel sure of yourself because you can always say, ‘This is true, I’ve seen it.’ You can argue as much as you like, but the public or critics still won’t accept it.”
Big Sky potentially faces a similar problem as its central drama hinges on a problem with which very few of us have any firsthand experience. Specifically, it is about a girl, Hazel (Bella Thorne), whose agoraphobia is so overwhelming that she can barely manage to get out of a van and walk a few miles to save her mother’s life. Hazel is being transported across the desert in a van to a remote mental health facility, along with three other patients, the driver, and her mother, who is just along for the ride. Because of her intense phobia, Hazel rides in a metal container in the back of the van. When a kidnapping of one of the patients turns bloody, Hazel’s mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is wounded, and Hazel must traverse the desert to find help in the nearest town, five miles away. Unfortunately, because of a screenplay-induced trauma in her past, she has developed an intense phobia of open spaces, necessitating lots of pills and a compulsion to regularly check herself for lesions.
Few of us have known someone with such a crippling fear, and even fewer harbor this phobia ourselves. But director Jorge Michel Grau manages to overcome this by smartly visualizing Hazel’s anxieties with extreme shallow-focus camerawork that places us in Hazel’s headspace. Grau sharply contrasts this with vast wide-angle shots that place Hazel’s figure against the titular expanse of New Mexico sky. If these contrasting edits never quite make the wide-open spaces of the desert terrifying, as they must be to Hazel, it does at least make her phobia credible. (Of course, in our highly psychiatrized age it is perhaps easier to accept almost any mental condition than it is to accept a deeply held religious conviction, even one conveyed by Montgomery Clift.)
In fact, Grau is so adept at conveying Hazel’s psychological dilemma, it’s kind of a shame he chooses to do anything else. But sadly Grau intercuts Hazel’s trek across the desert with scenes of her mother bleeding out in the van and scenes of the two kidnappers, who are also brothers, working through some apprenticeship drama. This stuff is fine, if pretty rote, and it does lead to some moments of mild tension and, ultimately, a decently satisfying shootout. More wearying is the way the film keeps pestering Hazel with flashbacks and dreams and, at one point, a wholly unlikely encounter with some Aldous Huxley-quoting free-spirit dude.
Instead of trusting in the inherent drama of Hazel’s situation, Grau and screenwriter Evan M. Wiener slot it into a sturdy but far from groundbreaking thriller plot. I was reminded of “127 Hours,” a film in which James Franco longs to stretch out in the wide open spaces of Nature only to find himself trapped in a hole. In Big Sky, Hazel wants nothing more than to confine herself in the tiniest space possible and is instead forced to journey through the vastness of the desert. They are inverted thrillers, and yet they both fall into the same trap. Instead of diving deep into their own intriguing premises, they pad out the runtime with a bunch of tedious flashbacks and cheap dream sequences. But whereas “127 Hours” had little to go on except that premise and Franco’s performance, “Big Sky” is still a decent little thriller. It’s just that, at its best, it suggests something even more.