Remember family road trips? Piling into the car and taking off for new and exciting destinations. You would eat an assortment of road snacks, your parents might be arguing about the route and the best way to get where you’re going. You and your sibling would be fighting in the back seat, because they set a finger over the invisible line and dared enter your side of the car. And then, out of nowhere, some random stranger begins following your family all over the freeway, threatening you with a can of poison and a spray gun.
Maybe that’s not how your family vacations went, but it’s exactly what happens in Lodewijk Crijns’s Dutch thriller Tailgate. The film is a tense road rage movie that is equal parts psycho stalker flick and family vacation drama.
As the film opens, Hans (Jeroen Spitzenberger) is desperately trying to corral his family into the car to make the drive to his parents’ house for his ailing father’s birthday party. They are late, they are expected, and on this particular day, nothing is going right. Once they get on the freeway, they hit traffic, delaying them even further.
Not helping matters, is an older guy (Willem de Wolf) in a white van who seems married to the left lane, causing a backup that starts with Hans and continues with a dozen other frustrated drivers. Hans flashes his lights and nudges the gas pedal to communicate to this motorist that he is holding everyone up and should change lanes. We can feel the tension in the car begin to rise.
Hans is furious with this other driver. His daughters are fighting. His wife Diana (Anniek Pfeifer) is trying to mitigate the backseat battle. His mother keeps calling to check their status, even though she was given an update 10 minutes before. This car is Distraction City. And as the audience, we feel it. The tension is overpowering as focus is continually pulled from the scene on the road to the scene in the car.
When the driver of the van suddenly breaks, Hans and his family narrowly miss disaster. As the van finally changes lanes and they are able to pull around him, they think they are putting the entire experience behind them.
Wrong. When they stop for gas, they again encounter the motorist - a tall, and resolute figure - who demands an apology from Hans for his dangerous behavior on the road. Enraged, Hans refuses and storms off after an intense exchange. This seals their fate. Now rather than demanding an apology, the man is demanding blood. No matter where they go, the white van is there. Always behind them and gaining ground.
The interesting thing about Tailgate is that yes, this family is being chased by a psycho, but we get the feeling that so much of what transpires could have been avoided if Hans hadn’t behaved like such a douchebag. The villain isn’t picking victims at random. His victims must first transgress. Had Hans apologized or not driven so aggressively to begin with, he and his family would not have been marked.
Mixed in with all of this is the fact that this family is completely ill-equipped to handle being chased by a psychopath. Panicked moments lead to dumb (though often hilarious) decisions. One such moment sees Diana, desperate to evade the van once and for all, driving through an unfamiliar residential neighborhood while Hans tries poorly to call out directions. The car barrels through a quiet suburb where children are playing, people are biking and speed bumps lie every 20 feet or so. They’re doing what they can, but this is not a family of John McClanes.
And the bottom line is that these people are pretty terrible. We’re not really rooting for Hans because we care about him. He’s kind of a tool. He angers easily, he is prone to tantrums and he always has to be right. We end up siding with him because we recognize the lone motorist as clearly the worse of the two characters, and we can easily put ourselves into the family’s shoes and empathize with their fear. And I think this is where some viewers might have trouble with the film. Sometimes if you can’t connect with the main character and you don’t have someone that you feel you can root for, it can take you out of the narrative because you don’t feel invested.
But if you can make it past that hurdle, the Tailgate is a tense thriller that will see you double checking your rear view mirror every time you get in the car.
Movie Score: 4/5