[Fantastic Fest 2023] THE LAST STOP IN YUMA COUNTY -- A Taut One-Location Thriller Full of Personality
Review by Daniel Lima
Alfred Hitchock’s maxim about “the bomb under the table” — that setting up a volatile situation that could explode at any moment is more rewarding to an audience than a sudden shock that comes out of nowhere — is oft-repeated but rarely put into practice. It’s simply easier to catch people off guard with something out of left field. The directorial debut of writer-director Francis Galluppi, The Last Stop in Yuma County, is an exceedingly well-executed and tense one-location thriller, living up to Hitchcock’s tenet admirably… that is, until it doesn’t.
A gas station on an isolated stretch of desert highway in the early ‘70s is out of fuel, and the truck supposed to replenish it is running late. Anyone looking to replenish their vehicle is forced to wait at the local diner. This includes two men who just held up a bank. The day wears on, more people file in, and it becomes unclear if everyone will be able to make it out.
Almost the entire film is set at the diner and neighboring station, and it goes to great lengths to establish the geography of the space — an important part of any story rooted in one location. From early on, the camera glides through and around the locale, giving the audience a sense of where all the characters are in relation to one another. Between the deliberate blocking, framing, and mobile camerawork, by the end of the movie, anyone would be able to map out the entire place.
That place is lovingly brought to life through set, sound, and costume design. There is an emptiness to the diner, a sense that its best days are long behind it, the still air only disrupted by the happenstance of a late fuel delivery. Sunbeams reveal dust, the worn wallpaper and kitchen appliances reveal age, and the quiet punctuated by conversation and a whirring fan hangs heavy with heat and tension. The costumes go a long way in selling the personality of the place and the characters who populate it, with just a glance communicating who that person is, how they carry themselves, and the life they’ve let. Beyond nailing the period setting, these details make even this desolate place feel alive and distinct.
The character work is perhaps the crowning achievement of Yuma County. There are no inorganic exposition dumps explaining anyone, beyond the kind of pleasantries people caught in this situation would exchange, yet so much comes through the diction, the colloquialisms, the respect characters accord each other. The dialogue has a nuance and flair to it that requires pitch-perfect performances. The cast rises to the challenge, nailing every minute idiosyncrasy and creating the feeling that this seemingly momentous one day is merely one day in a long, storied life for everyone involved. Everyone is fantastic, from Jim Cummings’s meekly mannered traveling salesman, to Nicholas Logan’s oafish criminal, to Jocelin Donahue’s composed and quick-thinking waitress. The entire ensemble does such a good job, you can almost predict how everyone will react as events unfold after only a couple minutes spent with them.
All this makes the wait for that “bomb under the table” to go off incredibly harrowing. The characters are all so endearing that seeing anyone meet their end would be devastating. The cinematography efficiently sets up every wrinkle and twist in the unfolding drama, while maintaining a clarity that escapes many a seasoned filmmaker. That the command of rhythm and pacing is every bit a match to the cinematography almost goes without saying. Yuma County accomplishes so much with its limited setting, from a first-time writer-director, that it’s hard not to be baffled while watching that first hour.
Unfortunately, there is a narrative shift that undermines the movie. None of the film’s merits disappear — it is still a taut and slick character-driven thriller — but the story has very little to go, long before the credits roll. The final note it ends on is confounding, feeling more like the ending of a particularly cynical short that was haphazardly tacked onto a story that had been so electric. Appropriate as it may be, it feels completely disconnected from the characters that had popped off the screen.
In spite of that, The Last Stop in Yuma County is a fun, effective thriller that uses its colorful ensemble and highly specific setting to great effect. That it is only the first feature film from Galluppi is shocking, and is a very auspicious start to a hopefully long career.
The Last Stop in Yuma County premiered at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, which runs September 21-28 in Austin, Texas.