With its ill-gotten loot, femme fatale and ends-of-the-earth locales, "Swerve" looks at first like a promising genre entry from Down Under, where the bar is set high. It might be the country's physical isolation or its penal-colony legacy, but a number of exceptionally robust thrillers have come out of Australia over the years, among them "Animal Kingdom," "The Square" and 1971's "Wake in Fright" (rereleased in 2012).
Craig Lahiff's noir wannabe, alas, isn't one of them. As it zigs and zags, its plot unravels rather than tightens, and its curveball of an ending is bound to leave audiences feeling as double-crossed as some of the characters.
Built of overlapping triangles, the story begins with the image of a tri-pronged fork in the road. A fatal car accident sets in motion the central drama involving a small-town cop, his dressed-for-the-city wife and the stranger who's caught between them.
David Lyons plays that stranger, an average Joe named Colin who turns in the cash-filled briefcase that he finds at the accident scene. Cop Frank (Jason Clarke) locks it up in a jail cell while Jina (Emma Booth) gets busy letting Colin know just how unhappily married she is.
There's atmosphere in the salt flats of the South Australia setting, a sinuous score and a nice touch of absurdity in the marching bands that crisscross the desert town. Clarke ("Zero Dark Thirty") provides needed jolts of hair-trigger tension, and Stone generates a modicum of heat before lapsing into cliché. As "Swerve" veers into dramatic indifference, Lyons' Colin never comes across as trapped, even when the scheming gets crazy and the body count mounts.
Rated: R for violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
Playing: at AMC CityWalk, Universal City.