Spark

The first half of Garret Williams?s 1997 feature-length debut is promising enough, savagely tweaking the Alfred Hitchcock Presents premise of hoity-toity outsiders getting their comeuppance from offended locals. A well-to-do African-American couple (Terrence Howard and Nicole Ari Parker, obviously picked for their good looks and not their acting ability) are stranded in the Mojave desert when their car breaks down. He's prickly and she's whiny, and when they and their BMW arrive in a desolate settlement full of white folks, the atmosphere gets at least as oppressive as the heat. Williams uses tight, distorted close-ups of the locals' sidelong glances at the garage and nearby diner to convey the racism the two think they see, and outdoors he places them against vast natural backdrops to underscore their isolation. When they finally drive away, we?re still not sure whether the townspeople were really racist or whether the couple brought on hostility with their bad attitude. The answer to that question ends the well-executed, tension-laden short version of this film that Williams made a few years back. But here there?s a tacked-on second half in which the couple returns to become entangled in a murder, and the film starts to look like an unpoetic Badlands rip-off. The padding dilutes the paranoia and cheapens the ironies; instead of an original vision we get another round of Hollywood gore and a lame excuse for bad behavior.

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