Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is possibly the greatest horror film ever made, but it ends with one of Hitchcock’s worst scenes, a tacked-on soliloquy by a psychiatrist who explains—mostly for the benefit of an unseen audience—why Norman Bates is who he is. It’s easy enough to write the scene off as a convention of the time, perhaps imposed by a studio unwilling to let viewers live with the disturbing ambiguity of Bates’ character. But there’s a lesson there for psychological thrillers of all stripes: Don’t explain the psychology part away. Alex Karpovsky’s Rubberneck—one of the two films (the other being the quasi-autobiographical road comedy Red Flag) the writer-director-star is releasing simultaneously—makes that fatal mistake at the tail end of a cool, Soderberghian mood piece about romantic obsession that was already barely keeping it together.
A far slicker, more elegant piece of filmmaking than Red Flag—so different in style, in fact, that it seems like the work of another director altogether—Rubberneck begins with Karpovsky, a research assistant, hooking up with co-worker Jaime Ray Newman at a Christmas party. The two have a weekend that ends abruptly, with Newman ducking out early on a movie date and Karpovsky left to wonder what went wrong. Eight months later, his obsession with her deepens when she hits it off with the new guy in the lab, who also happens to be married. Seething with jealousy and rage, Karpovsky sets about sabotaging their relationship, but his plotting takes a dark turn that forces him to confront a secret from his past.
On a formal level, Karpovsky proves capable of pulling off a high-toned thriller on a shoestring budget, and his performance adds a layer of menace to the neediness and insecurity of the characters he plays in Red Flag and HBO’s Girls. But in all other ways, he squeezes into the genre like an ill-fitting suit: Rubberneck feels more like an attempt to pull off a psychological thriller than a credible example of same, as if it were a sample reel for some future project. The entire story hinges on a thinly calibrated twist ending that’s meant to provide emotional weight to Karpovsky’s actions, but instead clarifies them to the point of utter banality. There’s no mystery left to linger.