Review by Daniel Lima
There is something inherently compelling about turning a police station into the target of a siege. The challenge of making an exciting, propulsive thriller within the confides of one location is further compounded by the need to make such an unassailable fortress vulnerable. Jericho Ridge, the directorial debut of Will Gilbey, is another entry in this niche genre.
The recently deposed and crippled sheriff of a Pacific Northwest rural community, now working as a deputy, goes to the station to work a dispatch shift. After being left alone for the night, she comes under fire from mysterious assailants. As the situation deteriorates, she is forced to push herself to the limit, physical and mental, to survive.
Establishing character, setting, and narrative stakes is important for any film, but it’s particularly crucial for a chamber piece. Jericho manages to do this with startling efficiency. In the first fifteen minutes, the film lays out: the former sheriff has a frosty relationship with her son; the small police force has a couple old hands and one doofus; the town has seen a recent uptick in crime, including drug peddling, a break-in at the station, and even murder. That all this comes organically — through characters engaging with one another like members of a community instead of writerly automatons — is a testament to the strength of the script.
Though the film is set in America, this is a British production, and the cast is reflective of that. Nikki Amuka-Bird gives a forceful lead performance, tempering resilience and strength with a vulnerability that makes her fascinating to watch. The other performers do their job admirably, lending idiosyncrasies to characters that in any other direct-to-video film would have been one-note. Even characters that only appear in one scene, or through voice-over, make the most of the time they’re given.
Of course, all this work is for nought if the film fails to deliver as a thriller. Fortunately, Jericho Ridge is a tight, expertly-paced ride that makes the most of its limited resources. Mauka-Bird’s sheriff faces a multitude of challenges through one harrowing night, each adding a new twist to a familiar scenario. She confronts a potentially dangerous stranger, but armed with an unloaded firearm and hobbled by a broken ankle. When she does find ammunition, it’s the wrong kind, meaning attempting to use it could destroy the gun and the hand holding it. This constant shifting of the narrative goes a long way towards giving the film momentum, crucial when the film’s perspective is locked to one character and location.
As commendable as the script is, it’s Gilbey’s skill at wringing tension through editing and composition that might be the most impressive part of the film. In an age where even big studio releases show a disappointing lack of craft, there is a near perfect sense of rhythm, timing, and space throughout here. While this is true even during the dialogue and exposition, it’s especially commendable through the action. Geography is established so you know exactly where characters are in relation to one another — there is clarity in the set pieces, each cut is deliberate and precise. The technical ability on display is an oasis in the desert that is the modern filmmaking landscape.
There is one thing holding the film back: its scope. One gets the sense that the story sticks so closely to Amuka-Bird because that’s what the budget allowed for. The film works well under that restriction, but there are moments where that narrow perspective restrains its potential. The main character interacts with many of the supporting characters through video streams, phone calls, and radio hails, creating a degree of remove from the drama and making the protagonist a witness to the story, rather than the driving force. The emotional beats have trouble landing when they reference events and characters that go unseen. The impulse to broaden the world beyond the walls of the police station is understandable, but it ends up highlighting the film’s limitations.
That said, a surplus of ambition is a welcome problem to have. Jericho Ridge is an exciting debut film, a pristine genre thriller that does more with a handful of actors and one location than most of today’s multi-million dollar blockbusters do with all the resources in the world. Will Gilbey has worked for decades as a writer, an editor, and a second unit director, and it is clear that time has developed him into a gifted craftsman. Hopefully, his next project gives him the resources he needs to make something remarkable.
Jericho Ridge is now streaming on BET+