It's a long way from the claw game at the outset of The Signal - that old arcade contraption with a mechanical arm for extracting priceless bounty, a plush bear, a toy - to the wide desert spaces at the movie's end, where a less tangible kind of manipulation is at work.
In William Eubank's eerily mysterious and inventive indie, that beginning makes perfect sense at the end. It's one of the few things that does.
Shot in widescreen, the better to capture the broad expanse of the Southwest and the broken and bewildered expressions of its lead character, Nic Eastman (Brenton Thwaites), The Signal is a road movie turned upside down and inside out.
Nic is an MIT computer whiz, in a car with his girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), and his programming cohort, Jonah (Beau Knapp), driving from East Coast to West, where Haley plans to live on her own. Nic and Haley have things to work out. And Nic, hobbling on crutches, has these dreams where he's running through the woods. Freudian. Jungian. Lynchian.
In motels along the way, Nic and Jonah sling open their laptops, feverishly trying to figure out the identity of "Nomad" - a genius hacker who infiltrated MIT's servers, and who now seems to be "following" the trio on their cross-country drive. Through e-mails and spiky prompts, clues are dropped, a challenge thrown down. Will Nic and Jonah ignore this guy?
Which is how, in the dead of night, in the middle of Nevada, they find themselves veering off the grid onto a dirt lane leading to an abandoned shack. At least, it looks abandoned . . .
The temptation to divulge more - to discuss the apparent influences of other filmmakers, the nods to other films - is mighty strong. But let The Signal take you by surprise. And it will.
Laurence Fishburne, covered head-to-toe in what looks like a hazmat suit, and toting a decidedly old-tech tape recorder and notepad, shows up in a significant role. It should be remembered that the actor was Morpheus in The Matrix series. His presence in The Signal is altogether as impactful.
The Signal *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by William Eubank. With Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne. Distributed by Focus Features.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, intense action, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.