Some days it doesn’t matter what you do, your fate is sealed before you’ve even woken up. On those days, you ride it out to the best of your ability, holding on tight to the proverbial wheel is one option while trying to ride the tide is another. In either case, your choices are few and the end is inevitable. This appears to be the undercurrent of writer/director Francis Galluppi’s feature-length directorial debut, The Last Stop in Yuma County, having its world premiere at Fantastic Fest 2023. Placing his characters in a volatile situation, a powder keg that few realize has its fuse lit, Galluppi presents a neo-western in which no one can be trusted, all have something to lose, and surviving the day comes with a heavy cost.
In Yuma County rests the only gas station for 100 miles. That station is attached to a motel run by Vernon (Faizon Love), which itself has a close neighboring restaurant run by Charlotte (Jocelin Donahue). On a day like any other, a knife salesman (Jim Cummings), a traveling couple (Gene Jones and Robin Bartlett), and two brothers in a hurry (Richard Brake and Nicholas Logan), all arrive in need of a full tank. As the day drags on with the A/C on the fritz, the inside temp rises, taking everyone’s patience with it, leading to a potential boil with deadly consequences.
The Last Stop in Yuma County plays like a bomb where the characters don’t realize the fuse was lit and burning their way. Galluppi makes it plain to the audience just what kind of situation is about to go down through the smart use of character introduction and blocking, introducing set and setting via Cummings’s twitchy and quiet salesman who arrives at the diner before Charlotte. The significance here plays on several levels, first being that it gives the audience someone who is their proxy, their way into the story. Second, the early arrival (pre-restaurant breakfast opening) tells us that the character is on the way somewhere and possibly has already been on the road for some time when we learn from the salesman’s conversation with Vernon about the distance to the next station. Third and finally, it allows the audience to see through the salesman’s eyes how the restaurant opens (introduces characters and complications), as well as creates a situation in which we, via the salesman, learn about other aspects of the story before other characters come in thanks to the salesman’s reluctance to be near anyone which has him sit in the car and listen to the radio. These might feel like a cheat in the way that characters in horror films or thrillers will turn on the tv *right* as a broadcast starts to provide the necessary exposition (Shaun of the Dead handles this specific aspect with creative brilliance), except Galluppi makes it such a clear part of the character of the salesman, timid, small, and eagerly seeking to get on the road, that these are choices that feel as natural as wanting to seek shelter from sweltering heat. Then, free of the introduction, Galluppi jumps in location for the purpose of his title card and credits, offering a sequence that tells the audience just how positively screwed the salesman is, as well as everyone who has the misfortune of seeking gas at that station on this day. The audience is given the harbinger, the characters unaware of the lit fuse, and so we wait, and the tension is palatable well before a malignant influence arrives at the station looking for a fill-up.
In order for the tension of the film to reach its apex, the audience has to feel like the journey there is earned. Choices like the above demonstrate a creative with an eye for details that will get the audience where they need to be as it relates to the characters. Will we worry for their safety? Will we grow concerned regarding the balance of power? Will the things we know ever out-weigh what we don’t? What’s particularly fascinating about Yuma County is that Galluppi doesn’t just give us an in with the salesman, but also with the brothers and Charlotte’s husband, Charlie (Michael Abbott Jr.), the local sheriff. This creates a triangle in the storm of intersecting points wherein things will either go very well or horribly wrong based on what the characters themselves know as fact and what is presumed. In this way, Yuma County eventually shifts from a game of chess, in which some try to out-think others, to poker, where playing the player as well as the cards one’s been dealt are the only ways to survive the blinds and stay in the game. It can be difficult to get a read on someone when the elements that make them up appear displaced. This is where the neo-western elements come in, as the costuming and production design of Yuma County easily could be confused for now or the 1970s. Are we watching a moment lost in time, like an episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), or is this an instance where the choices made by many people over an innumerable amount of time created a ripple effect that placed all-involved on a path toward a horrible destiny that can only result in one outcome?
At a tight 90 minutes, The Last Stop in Yuma County will keep you on your toes until the very end. Just when you think the flop saved you from the turn, the river arrives, and suddenly the pot belongs to anyone. What’s truly fascinating (and could be better explored in a spoiler-filled review) is the philosophical exploration of humanity that Galluppi infuses in the script. Are greedy people bad because they are greedy? Does trying to be a hero warrant a reward? What cost is it too high to stay in the game? When the world is a chaotic place and you try to exert some control, do you deserve the pot or the drop? There’s a moment where my stomach dropped due to this last thought, the reality a little too hard after what’s preceded it and what can be inferred from what we know of the characters.
I don’t think there’s a clear answer in Galluppi’s script to any of the above questions, but it’s a notion worth mulling over. Just make sure you know where your line is before you head to Yuma County. Oh, and be sure to fill up before you next hit the road.
Screening during Fantastic Fest 2023.
For more information, head to the official Fantastic Fest 2023 The Last Stop in Yuma County webpage.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.