When the Devil Drives: ‘Tailgate’ Mixes Fragile Masculinity and Road Rage

What if you cross the wrong person today? What if a chance exchange were to be taken the wrong way? Perhaps you’ve had a trying day and some stranger ends up feeling the brunt of your irritation. What if that stranger happened to be a single-minded murderer utterly obsessed with revenge? This, in a nutshell, is the premise of Tailgate (originally Bumperkleef).

Hans (Jeroen Spitzenbergen) is having a bad day. He is taking his family on a visit to see his parents and they’re running perpetually behind schedule. Hans is a braggart and a bully, as his long-suffering wife (Anniek Pheifer) and two daughters can attest. When Hans tailgates elderly driver Ed (Willem de Wolf) and, later, refuses to apologise for his actions, his fate is sealed. Ed is a serial killer. His weapon of choice? Pesticide.

The dread mounts as Hans, more than willing to play the sarcastic bully to his family and other road users, finds himself helpless in the face of Ed’s cold brutality. Failed by both bystanders and the police, Hans’ hyper-masculine facade begins to crumble. But will he learn to mind his manners before it’s too late?

From the opening scene, we establish a set of brutal stakes. Ed’s method of dispatching his victims is horrifyingly cruel, but is also appropriate to a man who sees himself as removing society’s pests. Physically intimidating due to his height, and always moving in a slow, methodical manner, Ed makes for a fantastic villain.

We have to give a hand to the surgical precision of Tailgate‘s editor. High-speed chases aren’t necessary when you can have the audience on the edge of their seat over whether a four-door sedan will make a turning on the motorway. Early scenes are nail-bitingly tense, with dark humour peppered throughout. A scene in which a frantic Hans careens dangerously through a town, believing that he sees Ed’s trademark white van everywhere, is particularly comic.

The production and performances are both top-notch. It’s impressive how, despite how many films share DNA with this motorway thriller, its stellar execution really made the horror feel fresh. That said, the film begins to stumble a little around the final third. Having been suffocatingly tight up to that point, it becomes a little baggier. It isn’t enough to make us forget the excitement of the opening, but it’s a shame that a film otherwise so consistent falls into a midway lull.

Part gripping slasher film, part satire on the fragile masculinity of both its protagonist and antagonist, the film does a decent job of marrying its horror and comedy elements. It uses the latter only sparingly, as an occasional counterpoint to throw the tension into sharper relief.

As with many films of this type (although its most obvious parallel is Duel, we were most reminded of relentless Norwegian thriller Headhunters), the true horror here is about scraping away the thin veneer of civilisation and discovering how fragile the social compact that keeps us safe really is. In the face of Ed’s obsessive and murderous fixation with his own personal moral code, the rules of society stand no chance.


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