One of Mel Gibson’s most memorable crazy-eyed loose cannon roles post-“Lethal Weapon” was the paranoid cabbie Jerry Fletcher in the 1997 thriller “Conspiracy Theory,” a well-made mess with an absurd ending that must have pleased the tinfoil-hat community.
The admirably ambitious albeit ultimately bonkers conspiracy thriller “Wander” – which was filmed in New Mexico – sometimes plays like a lower-budget, Southwestern variation on “Conspiracy Theory,” with Aaron Eckhart hurling himself into the role of Arthur Bretnik, a tortured man who never met a secret plot he didn’t believe in, and can I just tell you about the fantastic, comic book-style names assigned to the stellar supporting cast?
• Katheryn Winnick is Elsa Viceroy, a mysterious government operative who may or may not be part of the vast conspiracy.
• Heather Graham is Arthur’s loyal and long-suffering best friend and attorney Shelley Luscomb, who is always there when Arthur needs her.
• Raymond Cruz is Sheriff Luis Santiago, the no-nonsense head lawman in the remote and eerie town of Wander, where you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
• Tommy Lee Jones is the beer-chugging, back-slapping, story-spinning Jimmy Cleats, who’s been around longer than Area 51 and co-hosts a late-night conspiracy podcast with Arthur, I kid you not.
Shot in saturated tones favoring blood reds, cool blues and disturbingly vibrant greens, “Wander” takes us into the world of one Arthur Bretnik (Eckhart), who is experiencing PTSD and frightening flashbacks after his young daughter was killed and his wife was rendered catatonic by a horrific automobile accident that Arthur believes was not an accident but a deliberate hit carried out by unseen forces.
After a mysterious and violent death on a lonely stretch of highway – a young woman’s chest literally explodes, as if a bomb had been implanted in her – Arthur and his loyal sidekick Jimmy Cleats are hired to investigate the murder, which brings them to the town of Wander, where everything is shrouded in secrecy and almost no one is who they appear to be, leading Arthur to believe he has finally found a key outpost in the government’s vast and nefarious plan.
Or maybe Arthur is just imagining everything. It could be the stress, the medication and the grief talking.
Director April Mullen shoots “Wander” like a kinetic horror film, which results in some pretty cool sequences but also far too many quick-cut flashbacks to the deadly auto accident, which results in us feeling more annoyed and manipulated than intrigued. Aaron Eckhart has had an up-and-down career but remains a compelling presence; no doubt he worked hard on his madman cackle and his thousand-yard stare for this role.
Heather Graham and Katheryn Winnick are their usual reliable selves in standard supporting roles, and Tommy Lee Jones is such a hoot as Jimmy Cleats, I wouldn’t mind seeing an entire movie about this seemingly crazy old codger and how his wanderings eventually brought him to Wander.