Intriguing and watchable conspiracy thriller with excellent acting, especially from Aaron Eckhart. Shocking at times, though a little unsatisfying and not quite believable enough.
Well, this was an odd film: I enjoyed Wander while I was watching it, but once I reached the end realized that I didn’t know what to make of it. Not only that, but I couldn’t tell if that was the filmmakers’ intention.
As Wander opens, the camera flies down a dry, rural road, arriving at the scene of a car accident. We see a young woman stumbling away from the car, and then falling down apparently dead. Two law-and-order types look over the scene, commenting, “she knew what would happen”… and that’s the mysterious prologue. It looked to me as though the washed-out private investigator we meet next was going to be looking into a murder (perhaps she hadn’t died in the car crash as planned, and so was shot), but it turned out to be anything but straightforward.
Wander is full of excellent acting and well-known names. Aaron Eckhart plays Arthur Bretnik, a former detective who has become shaken into a conspiracy nut since the sudden death of his daughter (replayed several times in the film). His friend Jimmy Cleats (Tommy Lee Jones) gives him an outlet to his paranoia by way of a podcast they share and also provides camaraderie as a calming influence. Then there’s Shelly Luscomb (Heather Graham), another friend who is also his attorney, who does her best to keep him grounded, and shares in caring for Arthur’s catatonic wife.
When Arthur and Jimmy’s show receives a distraught call from a mother declaring her daughter has been murdered, and the murder covered up, Arthur senses a connection with his family tragedy and – reluctant at first – takes the case. Distrustful of everyone, and sometimes his own senses, Wander takes him down a decidedly unpleasant rabbit hole.
According to director April Mullen’s IMDb bio, Wander is offered “in honor of all Indigenous, Black and People of Color who are targeted and have been displaced through border control on stolen land.” That subject is presented with pre-credit captions, and features throughout the film; but not prominently. It’s almost a backdrop to the chaotic head-spin that still grieving Arthur Bretnik goes through. Eckhart’s superb performance and the hectic cinematography combine to ensure that his frame of mind is truly front and center. The investigation and what he uncovers (or thinks he does) only serve to fuel his instability.
Wander can get a little confusing at times, particularly in the first third or so while still acclimatizing to Arthur’s world view. There are erratic changes of image, showing his memories, his ideas, and the escalating conspiracies that drive him. Consequently, although the film is intriguing and very watchable, when he does make a discovery, it’s difficult to tell whether it’s all in his head. There are several clever (though outlandish) twists and turns, and by the shocking end, I still couldn’t tell whether we were seeing what was actually happening or simply viewing what Arthur thought was happening, still from his perspective.
The conspiracy at the heart of Wander, and the way it is revealed through the film, brought to mind an anecdote I read once about Ronald Reagan watching E.T. for the first time, shaking his head and commenting “if only people knew”. It was almost as though the film’s proposition stretched probability just enough that if anything like this really was happening, people would laugh it off, as the stuff of fiction. Part of me thinks this isn’t a terribly respectful way to “honor” people who have been displaced, etc.; another part of me thinks who am I to say? Anything could be happening in the world.