As Close as Far Away Gets: A Perfect Getaway 10 Years Later
It’s been 10 years since A Perfect Getaway was released. An entire decade with no critical reevaluation or popular resurgence. I think it’s safe to say that it will remain a hidden gem, something to be discovered for years to come.
It’s a surprisingly fitting fate for a movie like this. Much like the secluded beach in Kaua’i that newlyweds Cliff (Steve Zahn) and Cydney (Milla Jovovich) decide to hike to, A Perfect Getaway will be difficult to find but ultimately rewarding. Hopefully, the fate of those future filmgoers is a little rosier than the fate of our protagonists. This seems like a perfectly good point to warn away anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. Like signposts pointing out rough hiking and narrow ledges on the path to the idyllic beach, I’ve got to tell you to Turn Back Now if you’re not prepared. A Perfect Getaway is full of surprises, and, if you plan to watch it at all, it’s best to go in unspoiled.
For the hikers still with me on this journey, I want to talk about why this movie has stuck with me since its release. The premise is fairly straightforward for a thriller: after hearing about murders in Honolulu, a couple on their honeymoon are wary of everybody they meet, especially another couple who are headed to the same remote beach they are. They seem friendly enough, but their intensity and their ability to kill and field dress a goat sets off some warning bells. That’s an interesting but admittedly generic premise. What gives the movie its singular personality is its humor and relatability.
The opening credits play over Cliff and Cydney’s wedding video, then we see them driving together. Cydney is getting used to her new name, and they talk about starting their new life together. Cliff is a screenwriter whose first script sold, and Cydney is a little self-conscious about who she is as her own person. The pair decide to hike the rough trail to the remote beach on the far end of Kaua’i. This section does a great job of letting us get to know our leads. Cliff is a very cautious person, which causes some bad blood between them and two hitchhikers when he flip-flops about giving them a ride.
The hitchhikers are Cleo (Marley Shelton) and Kale (Chris Hemsworth). They both have strong drifter energy, and they’re very obviously in the film to be red herrings. Kale is aggressive and controlling and Cleo is spacier and more laid back. Shelton is always fantastic, and even though Kale is a one-note character, Hemsworth does a good enough job with it that I took notice of him. Between A Perfect Getaway and Star Trek, 2009 was a good indicator of his eventual stardom.
If you’ve ever been on a vacation that involved interacting with other people, whether it was a honeymoon or a regular holiday, then at least a few parts of this movie will resonate with you. You could run into a great listener who is wise beyond her years, a chatty know-it-all, an earthy couple who probably smell like moss and body odor. They make for good stories. They can also make for frustrating day trips.
A couple of those vacation cliché mainstays round out the lead characters in A Perfect Getaway. The couple that Cliff and Cydney run into, and eventually hike with, are Nick (Timothy Olyphant) and Gina (Kiele Sanchez), and they’re the most fully-realized performances in the film. Nick is an Iraq war vet who loves to talk about himself and has a particular fascination with Cliff’s career as a screenwriter. Gina is a great listener and a great foil to Nick, and she’s just as capable with a knife as he is.
The majority of the movie is the tension between these couples. Cydney is more easygoing and adventurous; Cliff is antsy around their new friends. There’s also a hint of emasculation. Nick is a bonafide tough guy. He can handle a hatchet and a bow, he was special forces in Iraq, he’s been in plane crashes, and has a metal plate in his head. As Nick puts it himself, he’s a goddamn “American Jedi.” Cliff seems more insecure about who he is. Does he want to be a storyteller, or does he want to have Nick’s life? On top of all that, Kale and Cleo show up occasionally, bringing their ominous, Manson Family aura with them.
Once the couples make it to the beach, the final act kicks in, and A Perfect Getaway becomes a full-throttle action thriller. There’s also a mother of a twist, so final warning to hop off this trail and head back to the safety of the hotel if you want a clean first watch.
Cliff takes Nick kayaking to a cave, and Gina discovers the truth, which we’re shown in a blue-hued flashback. Cliff and Cydney aren’t happy newlyweds, they’re serial killers who steal their victims’ identities. In one of the best scenes in the film, Cliff does meth and discusses his worldview with Cydney while sitting on the beach. Up until that point, Zahn has gotten to play snarky or goofy or repressed, and then he opens up and he’s manic and legitimately terrifying. He says stuff like, “you are the privileged witness who’s gonna help me lead a hundred different lives” and “the whole fucking world was manufactured for our wants and needs.”
The flashback probably runs a little too long, but it also has to do some heavy lifting to shift our perspective characters over to Gina and Nick. We’ve gotten to know them, but always from a bit of a distance in order to keep up that level of suspicion. The flashback gives us a couple cute scenes where they miss the first boat out to Kaua’i and Nick makes sure he has the right engagement ring for when he eventually proposes. It shifts us away from what’s been a fairly propulsive narrative, but overall, it’s worth it.
The finale has a lot of interesting, creative moments, and all four leads get to shine. Jovovich is no stranger to action scenes, but Sanchez’s performance here makes a good argument that someone should give her an ass-kicking franchise. Olyphant has proven he can knock it out of the park headlining TV shows like Deadwood and Justified, but he’s a little underrated in film. He has the goods as a genre picture lead, and anyone who doubts that just needs to do a double feature of this movie and The Crazies.
A Perfect Getaway has a lot to enjoy beyond the performances as well. The scenery is great, which isn’t a surprise since it was predominantly filmed in Kaua’i. David Twohy knows his way around a high concept thriller; he wrote The Fugitive, directed Below, and was the writer and director of Pitch Black. I’m a big fan of his other films, but I think this is easily his best work as a director. Movies that deal with any aspect of the film industry can really get on my nerves, but making Cliff a screenwriter is legitimately clever, and he keeps the grating “insider” dialogue to a bare minimum.
Sometimes a film with a big, perspective-shifting twist can fall apart during repeat viewings. Roger Ebert famously reviewed The Usual Suspects and said it had nothing to offer besides its twist. A Perfect Getaway avoids this pitfall. Watching this film a second time is such a different experience from the first time that watching it back-to-back should be a prerequisite. And every time after that, it’s worth watching for the interplay between the characters alone.
A Perfect Getaway is currently available on home video and on Amazon Prime, and I hope I’ve acted like a trail guide, leading you to the wonders beyond. If you do decide to follow my lead, I hope you don’t run into a homicidal couple looking for their next lives to steal. Unless you’re a goddamn American Jedi, that is.