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D: Richard Sears / 85m

Cast: Jena Malone, Douglas Smith, Ted Levine, Tamara Duarte, Kevin Owen McDonald, Jon McLaren, Mark Sivertsen

While on their way to LA and travelling through the South West, young couple Scarlett (Malone) and Alex (Smith) find themselves staying at a hotel overnight where they appear to be the only guests. At one point, Alex sees a man in a hoodie (McDonald) outside their room, looking up. When they leave the next morning, the man is there again. Back on the road, Scarlett becomes ill and they turn back, staying overnight at another hotel. The same thing happens again the next day, but this time, Scarlett disappears while Alex is in the hotel bar. When he tries to find her he meets the man in the hoodie who takes him out into the desert where he tells Alex there are bodies that he’s buried there at a certain spot; he then vanishes. Certain that Scarlett is with a locally based evangelist (Levine), Alex tracks him down to his church, but their confrontation offers more questions than answers, and Alex is forced to accept (or deny) that his trip with Scarlett has all been a dream when he wakes up and finds he is married to Paige (Duarte), and his next door neighbour looks exactly like Scarlett…

Early on in Richard Sears’ mystery mindbender of a movie, Scarlett asks Alex what’s the worst thing he’s ever done. His reply is boring, and no match for her tale of her mistreatment of a severely brain damaged cousin that she was meant to be looking after when she was younger. It’s a disturbing account, and feels somewhat out of place so early in the narrative, but it’s key to the events that transpire once Alex finds himself searching for Scarlett and then trying to decide if his life with her or his life with Paige is his true reality. With elements of both seeping and bleeding through and into each other, Alex’s quest for “the truth” becomes something that threatens to undermine his sanity. Through it all though, Brian Gottlieb’s script keeps bringing Alex back to Scarlett’s grim admission, and the mystery of her complicity – real or not? – becomes an obsession. It also leads Alex (and the viewer) to question the veracity of his memories, and the nature of his relationship with Scarlett. In his “dream” were they running away from a guilty truth, or toward one?

The answer(s) aren’t all forthcoming. Gottlieb’s script isn’t entirely successful when it comes to explaining just what exactly is going on, and while a fair degree of ambiguity is necessary to keep the scenario intriguing, a couple of narrative corners require a “one bound and he was free” approach to resolve matters. This leaves some moments feeling contrived and less than completely credible, and though Sears keeps things resolutely cryptic through a combination of hallucinatory visuals and an unsettling soundtrack, too much comes across as forced and/or unnecessary (Alex obsessing over the one black pea in a can is a case in point). So while the mystery of Scarlett’s story is eventually decided on, it’s at a disservice to the characters, who are required to behave bizarrely just to match the requirements of the plot. Playing two roles, Malone is a captivating presence as Scarlett, and ice cool as the more traditional femme fatale Alex has for a neighbour. As the tortured and conflicted Alex, Smith copes well with a role that could have been too arch and mannered for comfort (though it’s a close call at times), while Levine provides brief but effective support, and Adrian Langley’s apposite cinematography creates two distinct worlds for the price of one.

Rating: 6/10 – there are echoes of David Lynch here that aren’t as successfully integrated as they might have been, and the fusion of dream and reality doesn’t always gel, but there’s enough in Bottom of the World to make it worth watching; a valid attempt to create a waking nightmare, it nevertheless relies too heavily on the kinds of narrative “claim jumping” that requires too many occasions where belief has to be tempered thanks to narrative necessity.