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Movie review: ‘Wander’ is a winner that makes you wonder

Ed Symkus
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Arthur (Aaron Eckhart) does more than just talk about conspiracy theories.

Fans of movies that have a compelling beginning are going to be pleased with the way this one gets going. There’s been an accident on a desolate road. A Jeep is seen turned upside down. A distraught woman named Zoe crawls out of it and starts to run away. But she grabs at her chest, screams, a red blotch appears by her hand, and she collapses. Was she shot? The answer isn’t provided ... not just yet. But we do know where she is. The road sign by her crumpled body reads “Wander - Town Limits.”

That would be the fictional little burg of Wander, New Mexico. It’s a place where, later in the film, someone arrives, looks around at the ramshackle buildings, and the forlorn, despondent faces of the locals, and says, out-loud, to himself, “Why would anyone live here?”

The question is eventually answered, and it’s tied to the one about the woman’s death. But first, many more of them arise in this gripping and timely mystery-thriller that features themes and plotlines including immigration, border control, incarceration, social justice, black ops, politics, and conspiracy theories, as well some secretive and insidious “voluntary medical testing.”

It’s also about two guys: Arthur Bretnik (Aaron Eckhart) and Jimmy Cleats (Tommy Lee Jones). They’re both a little shadowy, but it’s clear that Arthur is a private investigator, usually relegated to exposing small insurance scams, that a car accident killed his young daughter and left his wife comatose, and that he’s dependent on prescription pills that are either for pain or anxiety. Jimmy is less easy to peg. His past is a blank slate. But they have one thing in common. They cohost a podcast - “The Thought Junction” - from Arthur’s trailer home in the desert, espousing various ways our basic civil liberties are being stolen.

A call from an agitated listener named Elena gets them caught up in events connected to the dead woman in Wander, which can’t be too far away from the broadcasting site, because Arthur hops in his car and quickly drives there. He’s the one who’s puzzled that anyone would live there. He’s also the one who is immediately and closely watched by the local authorities who know an outsider the moment they see one.

Two other characters have noteworthy effects on the story. Elsa (Katheryn Winnick), the woman wearing the black cowboy hat, keeps adding to the mystery element. Shelley (Heather Graham), the woman with the nicest smile in the film, and an old friend of Arthur’s, tries her best to keep things from spiraling out of control.

But most of “Wander’s” narrative sticks with Arthur, from his nightmarish flashbacks to his wife and daughter to his investigation of what happened to Zoe and his putting together of heinous puzzle pieces that start to explain the secrets of Wander. As he says in a phone call to Shelley, “I got hired to solve a murder, it’s led to something bigger, and I’m directly involved.”

It’s led to something bigger? Yeah, like a morgue containing an awful lot of bodies for a town the size of Wander. He’s directly involved? Well, he’s the one being followed by an enigmatic white Jeep, and he’s the one who has a gun pointed at him when he’s standing among a whole different group of freshly fallen bodies.

An unexpected pleasure in the film is to see Eckhart and Jones in roles that are quite different from ones they usually take. Eckhart, laying back, with his voice all gruffed up, plays Arthur as a man plagued by sadness and confusion. Jones’s Jimmy is an edgier character. He moves around at a good clip, and his voice squeaks excitedly a couple of times. That’s sure not very Tommy Lee Jones-like.

Lingering questions are finally explained near the end, and thankfully it’s all done in a way that makes sense, that isn’t dumbed down. But even after the explanations, new questions about Arthur come flying in. Is he having delusions? Is he “sick again?” Here’s one way to look at it: This is a story about fantasy clashing with reality, or maybe about fantasy and reality flowing in and out of each other. At least you’ll know for sure what happened to Zoe.

“Wander” opens in selected theaters and digitally and On Demand on Dec. 4.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Wander”

Written by Tim Doiron; directed by April Mullen

With Aaron Eckhart, Tommy Lee Jones, Heather Graham, Katheryn Winnick

Rated R