The Red Road Pilot Review – Sundance Channel – Film Dispenser

Television February 27, 2014 Scott Phillips
Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every Fall.

The culture and politics of Native Americans have served as background settings and plot points for several television shows over the past couple of years. The quest for “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” in Seasons 1 and 2 of AMC’s The Killing took Detectives Holder and Linden into the world of Indian casinos and the Seattle municipal politics they affect. On the A&E crime drama Longmire, there is a frequent tug-of-war between the Native American law enforcement that patrols the sovereign land of the reservation and civilian authorities.

In The Red Road, a new drama from the Sundance Channel that premieres on February 27th, we are introduced to the members of a Native American tribe living in the Ramapo Mountains in northeastern New Jersey who are seeking official recognition from the federal government. They view their white neighbors with suspicion, and the distrust is returned in kind. The two communities live in de facto segregation. Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson) is the local sheriff tasked with policing his mostly Caucasian hometown as well as the mountain home of the Ramapo Indians.

Jensen’s wife, Jean (Julianne Nicholson), grapples with substance abuse and fights to keep her daughter away from a local Indian teenager. Philip Kopus (Jason Momoa) is the son of a local chief who has returned to his home after serving time in prison. He is working with a contact in New York to run drugs through the Ramapo community. When the sheriff’s wife flees the scene of an accident after striking a young Indian boy with her SUV, Kopus sees the opportunity to extort police protection from the sheriff. Kopus and Jean were involved in a relationship in high school which adds an emotional component to the unfolding intrigue.

The Red Road creates a unique setting and atmosphere. The first episode establishes a very definite sense of place. The talented cast is comprised of lesser known actors and actresses who have appeared on Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire and other critically-acclaimed shows. Although there are only six total episodes in this initial season, the action doesn’t feel rushed. The characters and relationships are introduced at a relaxed pace.

There are pitfalls and clichés that Red Road needs to avoid. The sheriff’s daughter in love with the boy from the wrong side of the tracks has seen plenty of airtime before. This variation of Romeo and Juliet could grow tiresome very quickly. And it would be refreshing to find a villain who is mixed up in something other than the drug trade. From Justified, Breaking Bad and Graceland to the neon-80s action of Miami Vice, drug trafficking has been, and remains, the go-to crime for prime time, and as a consequence, it has become a bit of a snooze. Lastly, the performance of Julianne Nicholson needs to be dialed down a few notches. Instead of giving the audience a sympathetic character who carries a serious burden, her shrill performance makes Jean Larsen nothing more than a bothersome shrew.

However, there are a number of plot threads that certainly hold some promise. The disappearance of a New York man in the Ramapo Mountains that has search parties combing the woods could create some problems with Kopus’ drug-running schemes. To make matters worse, one of his close associates is responsible for the man’s death and sank him in a nearby lake. The death of Jean’s brother when she was in high school has been hinted at, and the sheriff himself seemed awfully nervous when the search party turned up some very old clothes and a cassette tape while they were literally beating the bushes for their missing person.

Most pilots either miss the mark entirely or leave an audience with the desire to see more, to follow this group of characters for one more installment to see if the seeds planted in the first episode begin to grow. The Red Road certainly falls in the latter category. It gives the audience an interesting premise on which to build an entire, albeit abbreviated, season. It doesn’t provide a tense, riveting opening like the pilot for True Detective, but that HBO drama is a very rare exception to my general rule. Will I tune in for the next episode? Yes, I will. Am I convinced that The Red Road will become required weekly viewing? Not yet.

Scott Phillips

The Movie Isle

Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.

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