Home Reviews Movie ‘The Last Stop in Yuma County’ Review: Like a Tarantino-Fueled Noir

‘The Last Stop in Yuma County’ Review: Like a Tarantino-Fueled Noir

‘The Last Stop in Yuma County’ Review: Like a Tarantino-Fueled Noir

Thirty years ago (in fact, it will be 30 years to the day this Sunday), Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, and cinema was never the same. Tarantino’s 1994 epic-crime-pretzel-meets-pop-monologue masterpiece smashed open one door after another, and an inevitable result is that we saw a great many movies in the ’90s that were Tarantino knockoffs — underworld capers of baroque violence and exuberant scuzz, movies that not only bent the dirty hedonism of film noir into new shapes but did it with a special brand of self-consciousness, a “Look at what we’re up to!” effrontery.

That attitude became part of the landscape, though you could also say that after a while, as a literal genre, the Tarantino knockoff faded away. But “The Last Stop in Yuma County,” a real-time, single-location crime thriller set at a gas-food-lodging stop in sunbaked Arizona, is what you might call an exercise in Tarantino knockoff nostalgia. It’s a lean, tight, and stylishly clever B-movie about a bank robbery gone wrong. It’s set in a period that’s never named but that feels like the late ’70s (rotary phones, a Bigfoot for President T-shirt, a general lackadaisical nowheresville-in-the-desert atmosphere).

But the distinctive post-QT element is the brashness, the way the film refuses to take anything it shows you all that seriously. In the ’40s and ’50s, many noirs, in their under-70-minute hardboiled sleaze way, were deadly serious movies: tales of romance and fatalism that played out like a Greek tragedy trying to beat the clock. But “The Last Stop in Yuma County,” which contains nothing resembling a love story, is simply a movie about two small-time sociopaths who are killing time in a diner while waiting for a fuel truck to arrive at the adjoining gas station (where the pumps have gone dry). Every so often, a new customer enters the diner, because they’re out of gas too. Since the air conditioner is on the fritz, you can almost see the heat waves. The place becomes a suspenseful pressure cooker.

The first-time writer-director, Francis Galluppi (the name sounds European but he’s from Los Angeles), establishes his chops in the unblinking opening shot, which lasts for close to two minutes. As a thrumming, dread-soaked neo-’50s score plays, we see an image as carefully framed as an Edward Hopper painting. It’s a dusty highway, with a motel to the left (but the sign, cut off by a wall, just says “TEL”), and there are buzzing flies and a hint of a cloud passing overhead. It’s all very subtly out of focus, except for the close-up image of a small bird wobbling around on one of the gas pumps in the lower right corner of the frame; the bird flies off just as a car pulls up to the pump. The entire shot is a piece of naturalistic choreography that feels like it could have been staged by the young Steven Spielberg. In a movie like this one, ingenuity is all.

The man in the car is handsome in a nervous-geek way, with a very straight haircut, and he’s toting a small rectangular case. He’s got an unmistakable Norman Bates vibe (something the film makes reference to). While twiddling with the radio, he hears about the bank robbery (the fact that the men drove off with $700,000 in a green Pinto), and he then flips the radio onto a song that, to me, was needle-drop heaven: the 1968 Paul Mauriat version of “Love Is Blue.” I confess that this instrumental French ditty of tinkling rapture is one of my all-time favorite pop songs, and the film uses it in heavily ironic counterpoint, laying it over shots of an orange truck turned on its side, post-crash, dripping gasoline. Love is blue, and in this movie so are blood, guts, bullets, and octane.

The Norman Bates-in-the-’70s fellow is played by Jim Cummings, the gifted indie actor and filmmaker who is, among other things, a wicked chameleon. Even those who relished his performance as a trainwreck of a small-town cop in “Thunder Road” (which he also directed) might not immediately recognize him here. His character, it turns out, is a knife salesman (which evidently was a thing back then, sort of like selling encyclopedias), and he’s on his way to visit his young daughter. The audience thinks: neo-Anthony Perkins + knife salesman + divorced dad = big loser. But Cummings invests the character, who is never named, with a spooky awareness. He’s a scaredy-cat soul who absorbs everything.

Mostly, he’s trying to survive. So is Charlotte (Jocelin Donahue), the pretty waitress — this is back in the age when everyone refers to her as a “pretty waitress,” as if it were a job description — who says goodbye to her doofus Southern-hippie local sheriff of a husband (Michael Abbott Jr.) and then starts serving coffee.

That’s when Beau (Richard Brake) and Travis (Nicholas Logan) walk in. They’re the bank robbers, and it doesn’t take long for them to figure out that Charlotte has already made them. (Even in the ’70s, a green Pinto stands out.) Galluppi has an exceptional eye for actors, and he scores a real coup by casting Richard Brake as the alpha crook. As Beau, Brake is tall and gaunt, with burning eyes, a rotter who looks like Steve Buscemi crossed with David Byrne crossed with a human rattlesnake who’s a lifelong junkie. Yet he speaks in a voice that’s bone-dry with logic. He’s the one who’s going to keep this situation on the down-low. As for Travis, his partner, he’s the hothead, like Steve Zahn on steroids, doomed to make it all explode.

We expect the situation to unravel gradually, the way that “Reservoir Dogs” did. But Galluppi pulls a kind of thriller prank. You know how Tarantino’s signature was the Mexican standoff? At one point “The Last Stop in Yuma County” asks: What if there were a Mexican standoff, involving more people than you can count, and everyone fired? The movie turns death into a joke, but it also segues into a note redolent of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” The cash that the robbers have stashed in the Pinto proves to be a mighty temptation. And woe to anyone who stands in the way. “The Last Stop in Yuma County” is a nihilist lark, but it’s just good enough to remind you what the Tarantino revolution was about: making a world where nothing matters matter.


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