In the dead of night, daybreak can seem like a distant dream.
Written and directed by Naveen A. Chathapuram, The Last Victim follows Susan (Ali Larter) and Richard Orden (Tahmoh Penikett), a young couple who set out on a road trip across the American Southwest. However, their journey comes to an abrupt end when then encounter Jake (Ralph Inneson) and his crew of modern-day outlaws. Drawn in to a conflict that is not their own, Susan and Jake must flee into the wilderness with the hope of evading the death that pursues them or surviving the brutal terrain.
Led by strong performances by Larter and Inneson, The Last Victim is a surprisingly tightly written thriller that grips the viewer and rarely lets go. In Victim, Larter is at the top of her game, energetically showcasing her emotional and physical strength. At the same time, Inneson’s philosophical villain makes him infinitely watchable, unleashing his wrath in one scene and delving into the meaning of existence the next.
Although the western genre seems to have all but died in our superhero-lade current cinematic landscape, in reality it has merely evolved in its form. Whereas the western was once used as a metaphor for broadening our horizons, its modern form seems to lean into what it takes to endure in isolation. Similar to Last Victim, films like Hell or High Water or No Country for Old Men tell stories that portray the American mid-West as a place of hopelessness and harsh realities. Gone are the days of exploration and conquest as the films give way into the barrenness and brutal conditions of the land and man’s most base sensibilities. (In fact, Victim even subverts this traditional theme by thwarting Richard and Susan’s simple wish to step out into the world just to see what’s out there.)
The desire to explore has been replaced with a need to survive.
As a result, there is a heaviness to this film that’s pervasive from beginning to end. With a hefty emphasis on shadow, Chathapuram visually depicts a world blanketed by darkness. Covered by night, anything goes in this wasteland. For example, in one particularly powerful visual, Chathapuram fills the entire screen with an intense blackness, leaving only the lights of a distant squad car. As the small flickers of red and blue slowly disappear from view, the night sky seems to swallow up the last vestige of justice in the wilderness.
Because, in this world, hope is even further from the horizon.
But it’s not just the heroes that seem lost in the bleakness of the land. While he remains willing to take one’s life on a whim, Jake is also trying to make sense of its meaning as well. For him, the purpose of existence is all but lost. “Meaning ain’t something you find. It’s something you make,” Jake growls. As a result, he wanders aimlessly like an animal on the prowl, looking for someone to devour. (Credit goes to Inneson here who portrays Jake with such ferocity that one can’t help but be intrigued by his brutal intentions.) This is a world of endless corruption and the only way to survive is to be the dominant beast.
However, despite the pervasive darkness within the film, it’s possible that there are glimmers of hope by its finale. Without any spoilers, after the film’s bloody finale, the question is posed about how we live with the past, especially when it’s marred by pain and suffering. Although the film emphasizes its Darwinian mentality in the wilderness, it also speaks to the need for compassion and grace in order to truly survive. Moments such as a simple offer of a cup of coffee provide some space for light to eat away at the shadows, even when they feel endless and powerful.
In other words, while there are times that the titular ‘last victim’ of the film seems as though it’s going to be hope itself, the flame continues to flicker.
The Last Victim is available in theatres and on VOD on Friday, May 13th, 2022.