‘Desert Road’ Review — A Sci-Fi Banger That Would Make Stephen King Proud

Estimated read time 7 min read

The Big Picture

  • Desert Road
    is a compelling thriller that transitions from mundane to mystical threats on a deserted California highway.
  • Star Kristine Froseth shines as she embodies a strong and sympathetic heroine in a twisty, genre-hopping story.
  • The film is a focused and effective 90-minute genre flick with clever storytelling and suspense, despite some narrative shortcuts.

Desert Road takes its title from its single, solitary setting: a stretch of dusty highway running through the middle of nowhere California. There are a couple of points of interest — a small gas station that’s almost certainly the last pit stop for a hundred miles and a fenced-off factory where laborers toil away deep inside making god knows what — but otherwise it’s nothing but barren landscapes on either side of the road, with sand dunes stretching as far as the eye can see. For most people, it’s just the empty void you drive through to get from one place to another.

Desert Road (2024)

A woman crashes her car and walks down the road for help – only to find no matter which way she walks she ends up back at her crashed car again.

Release Date March 10, 2024

Director Shannon Triplett

Runtime 90 Minutes

Writers Shannon Triplett

But, in the capable hands of first-time writer-director Shannon Triplett, the road becomes something much more terrifying — a metaphysical puzzle box that turns time and space on its head and feels designed to keep you trapped in the desert, examining your failings, forever. Desert Road almost immediately establishes itself as a potent thriller, but the real fun to be had is watching it evolve from one type of film to another, as mundane threats give way to more mystical hazards.

What Is ‘Desert Road’ About?

Specifically, the road in question here is California State Route 190, and a 20-something named Clare (Kristine Froseth) is traveling on it as she flees the Golden States for Iowa. A would-be photographer who hasn’t been able to find any success chasing her passion, the dejected Clare is ready to throw in the towel and head back home. A quick stop at the gas station turns awkward and perhaps slightly menacing when Randy (Max Mattern), the odd and slightly pushy young male clerk, starts giving off some iffy vibes. Clare lies about having a boyfriend waiting in the car and takes off down the road as quickly as possible. She doesn’t make it far before her tire blows, sending her car violently careening off the road. She’s self-reliant enough to be able to replace the flat, but she can’t do much about the small boulder that’s become wedged underneath her car, effectively leaving it stuck on the side of the road. Her cellphone reception is spotty at best, and the viewer can’t help but feel protective of her when she has no choice but to walk back to the gas station to deal with creepy Randy again.

From that point, things spiral downward in ways neither Clare nor the audience are likely to see coming. It becomes probable that Randy isn’t who he seems to be. And perhaps neither is Steve (Ryan Hurst), a man offering to help who claims to be a tow-truck driver … but is also possibly the local sheriff? For Clare, things make less and less sense from one moment to the next, and she’s not sure if it’s because she’s being scammed or if it’s the result of a concussion she suffered in the crash. (The back of her head is bleeding pretty consistently.) Not trusting anyone but herself, she begins to walk toward the nearest interstate. There’s only one problem: No matter which direction she walks on the road, she always ends up right back at her car. She tries walking perpendicular to CA-190, hoping to reach a separate road she knows is over a nearby ridge. She crosses it … and finds herself back on the 190. Clare’s reality has collapsed down to perhaps a mile-long stretch of road, the factory, and the gas station — all constantly looping back on themselves. She’s trapped, and her belongings start vanishing from her car, maybe stolen by a strange, older vagabond woman (Frances Fisher) who lives in a tent at the edge of the ridge. It’s clear that basic laws of geography don’t apply to this place, and, eventually, the laws of time itself don’t seem to matter much either.

‘Desert Road’ Has the Vibe of a Lost Stephen King Story

A poster for SXSW 2024. Image via SXSW

The story Triplett concocts here feels a lot like a banger of a Stephen King tale that you’d stumble across about halfway through one of his short story collections. (Please note that I mean this as a high compliment, and I hope she takes it as such.) Though Desert Road’s characters are few, each makes a strong impression within the film. The more Clare unravels, the more Froseth (a former model who’s popped up in interesting fare like Gareth EdwardsApostle and the 2022 eco-thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline) gets to show off her acting chops, as she struggles not only with her increasingly weird and dire predicament, but also her disappointment over the direction her life has taken. Mattern is unsettling from his first frame, and Hurst (probably best known for Sons of Anarchy) ably fills out a rapidly evolving role that requires a deft touch. To top it off, no less than Beau Bridges, a certified cinema legend, turns up in the back half to play a small but pivotal part as an older man still coming to terms with past regrets.

It’s a good cast, and Triplett, who served as a visual effects coordinator in Hollywood before pivoting to writing, gives them juicy material to work with. The various obstacles put in Clare’s path each feel weighty and serve to heighten the always-rising tension, even if they grow more outlandish as the film goes on. Her credit card being declined early in the film feels like a punch in the gut at the time. But it’s basically ancient history by the time Clare is drawing elaborate diagrams that map her own personal space-time continuum on the gas station’s outside wall. Desert Road is a small-scale, personal thriller that exponentially expands outward until it blossoms into a looping, sci-fi head trip, all without ever losing touch with its endearing central character.

King notoriously has trouble with his endings, and, in general, any author trafficking in such high-concept mind-fuckery can easily stumble in the final stretch. The ending Triplett concocts for Desert Road isn’t as strong as what came before, but it does have its heart in the right place, offering a conclusion that feels a little too easy, even if it does serviceably fit as the final piece to the puzzle. There are also a few odd omissions in the film. Clare’s photography plays an important role both thematically and as part of the movie’s plot, but Triplett surprisingly chooses not to linger on any of her images. (Maybe she thought they would be better left to the imagination, though I wouldn’t necessarily agree.) Still, Desert Road is always gripping and clever more often than not, taking concepts we may have seen explored in similar darkly fantastic stories but twisting them into fun new shapes.

Desert Road 2024 Film SXSW Promo Image

Desert Road (2024)

First-time writer/director Shannon Triplett makes a strong impression with this twisty, genre-hopping thriller.


  • Desert Road offers up a compelling story that builds suspense early before taking things in a wild sci-fi direction.
  • Star Kristine Froseth makes for a strong heroine who earns the audience’s sympathy almost immediately and never loses it.
  • Is there anything better than a focused and effective 90-minute genre film?


  • The movie takes a few shortcuts in its narrative, and the ending, while fitting, perhaps comes a bit too easy.

Desert Road had its World Premiere at the 2024 SXSW Film & TV Festival.