Sundance 2023: Divinity & The Accidental Getaway Driver

Divinity (Sundance Institute)

Divinity disappoints while The Accidental Getaway Driver surprises in this selection of genre offerings from the fest.

No amount of recasting could have possibly saved Eddie Alcazar’s Divinity from its state of terminal confusion. That’s a shame considering the number of the relatively famous names involved. They include, most mystifying of all, executive producer Steven Soderbergh. 

A bewildering stew of sci-fi, social commentary, and general weirdness, the title refers to a drug developed by renowned scientist Sterling Perce (Scott Bakula) to prevent death. Ironically, he died before completing his work. Thankfully (?), his son Jaxxon (Stephen Dorff) solved the formula and sold it to the masses. It appears to do the job of forestalling death but with an unexpected side effect–the inability to reproduce. 

Divinity (Sundance Institute)
(Sundance Institute)

One day, two oddball brothers (Moises Arias and Jason Genao) turn up at Jaxxon’s remote desert compound. They force him to take a massive dosage of Divinity, revealing that Jaxxon, perhaps significantly, had never used it before. Things grow further complicated by the arrival of sex worker Nikita (Karrueche Tran). Unbeknownst to her, a tribe of some of the last fertile women led by Ziva (Bella Thorne) is pursuing her. They need Nikita as part of their plan to save the world from the ruinous effects of Divinity. 

At first, the film’s aggressively low-fi aesthetic—including black-and-white photography, prosthetics, and stop-motion animation—does have a certain junky charm. However, that wears off. Once it does, it leaves the impression Alcazar has taken a concept for an intriguing short and tried to stretch it out into a full feature. He was guilty of the same with his previous feature, Perfect. 

No amount of recasting could have possibly saved Eddie Alcazar’s Divinity from its state of terminal confusion.

Divinity seems to want to explore the scientific and consumerist lengths humankind will pursue to extend its life span, damn the consequences. But those provocative ideas get lost amidst the not-bizarre-enough imagery, the increasingly tedious narration from Tran’s character, and the silliness involving the fertility tribe. 

Back in the days when midnight movies thrived, a film like Divinity might have earned a small and presumably stoned audience. They could ignore the incoherence and just let the weirdness wash over them. Sadly, seen in the cold and sober light of day, it cannot be regarded as anything other than a mess. 

The Accidental Getaway Driver, which earned Sing J. Lee a much-deserved U.S. Dramatic Competition award for Best Director, is a far better subversion of genre expectations. Based on a real-life 2016 incident recounted in a GQ article, the film opens late one night as Long Ma (Hiep Tran Nghia), an elderly Vietnamese cab driver now living in Orange County, receives an after-hours call for a pickup. He initially refuses, but experiences second thoughts and grabs the gig. 

The Accidental Getaway Driver (Sundance Institute)
(Sundance Institute)

After picking up his three passengers—Tay (Dustin Nguyen), Aden (Dali Benssalah), and Eddie (Phil Vu)—and driving them around for a while, Long begins to suspect that something isn’t right. As it turns out, the three have just broken out of prison and plan to hold Long hostage until they can escape the country. As their time together grows longer, the situation becomes more volatile. 

The obviously dangerous Aden sees Long as a loose end that must be tied off. Meanwhile, Eddie, the youngest and most hotheaded of the trio, is hungry to prove his bona fides. He’s shaking to burst into violence at a moment’s notice to do so. Tay, the oldest and most sensible, tries to maintain the peace while serving as a translator. Inevitably Tay is forced to choose between his accomplices and their hostage as time begins to run out. 

From that brief description, one might assume that The Accidental Getaway Driver is a gripping thriller, a real-life version of Michael Mann’s Collateral. But while it begins that way and does offer other moments of high tension, that’s not the movie the audience gets. Instead, Lee throws a curve, using the setup as a springboard for a quieter and more contemplative drama. 

[ The Accidental Getaway Driver]’s an undeniably intriguing and compulsively watchable variation on a standard theme.

As Long goes through his situation as a hostage, he finds himself drifting. He begins to dwell on memories of his complicated life, especially regarding his now-estranged family. This forced trip down memory lane leads him to form an unexpected connection with Tay. 

At first, Tay naturally assumes Long is just trying to get him to lower his defenses. Nonetheless, a moving and convincing bond develops. The performances by Nghia and Nguyen expertly depict the characters’ evolving understanding of each other. It culminates in a climax bristling with real emotional stakes. 

Those going into The Accidental Getaway Driver expecting a conventional thriller may become a bit frustrated with Lee’s quietly contemplative pacing and lack of overt pyrotechnics. However, those in the mood to witness a fresh and intriguing narrative approach to what could have been an ordinary genre exploration will be rewarded. It’s an undeniably intriguing and compulsively watchable variation on a standard theme.

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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