The Well (Thomas S. Hammock, 2014)

Haley Lu Richardson in a scene from Thomas Hammock's  The Well .  {Photo: FEDERIGHI FILMS}

Haley Lu Richardson in a scene from Thomas Hammock's The Well . {Photo: FEDERIGHI FILMS}

The Well screens on Friday, October 17 and Sunday, October 19.  The cast and crew are scheduled to attend both screenings. More information can be found at the Chicago International Film Festival's website here. This is a capsule review. A full review will be published upon the film's United States theatrical release. 

This summer’s ice bucket challenge was one of the more bizarre social media trends. Even if it netted over $115 million in ALS research, it’s a cause for concern when the Los Angeles Times reports that up to 14 communities in the Parkwood, California area on the brink of waterlessness in the wake of a prolonged drought. Wells tapped and communities forced to make do with rationed supplies, it’s an alarming and poorly reported event. This was in the back of my mind while watching Thomas S. Hammock’s The Well. Hammock, who up until now served as a production designer for the entourage of new horror filmmakers led by Ti West and Adam Wingard, aligns himself with West’s style of filmmaking: a slow burn building up to an explosive climax.

The Well cribs aspects from Cormac McCarthy’s novels, with Blood Meridian and The Road serving as critical reference points. Set in a desert wasteland along the Oregon Valley, The Well focuses on the survival of rural ranchers living off the last bits of water from their well. Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson) is the vessel for experience, a plucky young woman sporting a shotgun and ankle hatchet, possessing the wisdom and humility of a Mattie Ross. She rummages through the desert’s abandoned vehicles, in what seems like an increasingly futile search for a connector piece for an airplane. Her ailing boyfriend (Booboo Stewart) maintains their destitute ranch, where the two hide in the attic away from a violent and ruthless landowner and his posse of religious zealots.

The Well is a taut and efficient exercise. There’s not a wasted moment in its construction. For its first half, the film is hell bent on establishing the dire circumstances of its characters, with Kendal shouldering the burden with bravado not afforded to most action heroes. Water dripping in this sun-scorched environment only heightens the sense of unease - this is an apocalypse realized effectively through its use of landscape and the searing sun that sets upon it.

Hammock goes a little off the rails in his third act, in a bloody showdown between rancher and proprietor. It’s a sequence that unfortunately demands something much more grandiose and, I’ll chalk it up to budgetary reasons, the film simply can’t provide its characters that epic sense of closure that Hammock seems to be striving for. Despite the formal conclusive misstep, Hammock’s film is a welcome addition to this new age of horror films - films that take the established techniques of its predecessors to apply them to contemporary preoccupations.