It’s the near future, and the world (or at least this part of it) is suffering from a decade-old drought. Two teens in the newly desert-like state of Oregon struggle to survive on what used to be a family farm — Dean (Booboo Stewart) hides out in the attic, Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson) makes runs to the nearby well for water — but their efforts are hampered by his failing kidneys, a roving band of violent marauders and the well’s dwindling water supply.
They have a plane in a nearby barn, but it’s in need of a very specific engine part, and it soon becomes clear that they may not last until that piece is found. Dean’s health grows worse each day, and Carson’s (Jon Gries) gang is stepping up their efforts to eliminate threats to the region’s limited water sources. What’s a teenage girl with moderate shotgun and samurai sword skills to do?
The Well offers up a smartly-crafted, lo-fi apocalypse that packs in substantial substance and care for its budget. Director/co-writer Thomas S. Hammock delivers a mostly convincing and desolate world along with a highly empathetic lead character who acts as our guide through a life seemingly without hope.
There’s already a sense of foreboding about the hot and dry desert landscape — the Mojave Desert standing in for an apocalyptic Oregon — but Carson and his people add a far more immediate threat. His daughter Brooke (Nicole Fox) is following in her father’s cruel footsteps as he trains her to believe that the remaining water throughout the region is there for them and their small group of people. Other survivors are dealt with at the end of a gun or with asphyxiating gas. No exceptions, no mercy.
The setup here is fairly straightforward, but that seemingly generic simplicity doesn’t prevent the film from being an engaging and engrossing thriller. Many of the post-apocalyptic tropes are represented here — thankfully attempted rape is not one of them — but the script (from Hammock and co-writer Jacob Forman) presents them in a way that keeps viewers legitimately on edge as to outcomes and actions. Each new face represents a threat, either immediate or potentially down the road, and Kendal’s behavior reflects that harsh reality. Richardson, in turn, brings a fine mix of strength and vulnerability to the character. She’s capable and smart, and while we have no idea how long she’s been having to take care of herself it’s clear that she still retains a sense of humanity and compassion missing from Carson’s crew.
He’s actually the one area where the film suffers a bit by teasing a feeling of movie-like artificiality. Carson and friends have a theatrical bent that makes them prone to speechifying, and the result is that they feel like post-apocalyptic movie bad guys. His daughter adds something a bit unusual, but even there it feels like a movie concoction instead of a believable reality.
The film’s stark visuals create a distinct sense of isolation between pockets of survivors and individuals, and the cracked and sandy earth, the yellow, brown and red colors and dry winds feel almost tangible. Indies often avoid genre stories for budgetary reasons, but the world created here is as believable as any studio film could accomplish. It helps that Hammock, a former(?) production designer, knows how to frame and craft his scenes for maximum effect.
The Well lacks big set pieces or effects-filled money shots, but it never feels like it needs them either. Instead the drama and suspense alternately build, level off and build again to a fairly aggressive and satisfying finale. Richardson in particular stands out with her intensity and heart, and she helps to further ground the story into a believable and occasionally terrifying world. I look forward to seeing what Hammock can do with bigger budget in the future, but I’d be equally excited for more like this.
The Upside: Strong lead character; grounded world; suspenseful, exciting and affecting; accomplishes a lot with very little
The Downside: Bad guys are a bit overdone; digital blood enhancements are distracting
On the Side: Thomas S. Hammock was production designer on The Guest, V/H/S/2 and You’re Next.