3 posts categorized "Road Movie"

April 01, 2014


BADLANDSTerrence Malick’s self-penned feature debut is a haunting road movie pitched in ‘50s Americana. The film’s razor-sharp tone of poetic irony is unique. Its inquisitive mood and regard for natural imagery suggest a childish quest for a utopia that already exists but somehow goes unrecognized.

Made at the height of the Vietnam War, “Badlands” is a parable of escaping society’s traps through senseless killing. If that fairy-tale-of-wartime-logic rhymes with the one established by the American government, then so much the bigger pit to be left in the stomach of the audience.

Malick developed the linear script — loosely rooted in the 1957-58 murderous rampage of 18-year-old Charles Starkweather and his 13-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate — while the upstart director was studying filmmaking at the American Film Institute.


Martin Sheen embodies his 25-year-old roustabout anti-hero Kit with a copycat haircut and attitude stolen from James Dean’s onscreen persona. The effect is uncanny. Dressed in a plain white t-shirt, jean jacket, and blue jeans, the skinny, manic Sheen is an exquisite vision of handsome rebellious male energy — all wound up and ready to pop.

On a whim, Kit quits his job as a garbage collector in a small town in South Dakota. He notices Holly (Sissy Spacek) twirling a baton in the front yard of her house. In hemmed white shorts that show off her slim nubile legs, the red-haired Holly is a perfect vision of American innocence. Kit makes his move toward her without hesitation. She will be his. Kit doesn’t care about winning over Holly’s protective father (Warren Oates). He knows that could never happen. The blue-collar Kit is conscious of America’s social class divisions, but his hard-bitten narcissism allows him to unconsciously dismiss them. Kit’s experience as a trash collector has taught him the insignificance of physical possessions. He’s only concerned with wearing clothes that reinforce his James Dean impersonation — however impoverished it may be.

Holly’s affectless narration announces the story as her own. We know that her mother died of pneumonia when she was very young while living in Texas. Holly’s view of the world is limited, to say the least. The romantic chemistry between Kit and Holly is absolute. Theirs is a lonely and empty world in need of excitement, of free expression. From the start, they share a mutually acknowledged need to escape from their Midwest culture vacuum. Kit is a sociopath but neither he nor Holly are capable of recognizing it.

Killing people comes easily to Kit. Bearing witness to Kit’s penchant for sudden violence comes just as effortlessly to Holly. Their relationship is reciprocal in that way. Kit needs Holly to observe and register his nonchalance at killing people without provocation, just as Holly needs Kit to act out such terrible behavior. Still, their killing spree wouldn't be possible if not for their ability to hop in a car to go on the run toward more slaughter. Living with the repercussions of violent actions can always be put off so long as there is a road and a car.  


Rated PG. 94 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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February 24, 2013


Two-laneAs much as Monte Hellman’s 1971 anti-narrative road movie will forever be inextricably associated with “Easy Rider” (1969), “Two-Lane Blacktop” transcends the Vietnam era in a more timeless way. Where “Easy Rider’s” dual protagonists — played by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda — were drug-smuggling hippie outlaws, the four main characters in “Two-Lane Blacktop” represent a broader generational spectrum of American wartime experience. A malaise of alienation has set in.

Muscle car engines roar with masculine purpose. The wavering sound of a car radio gives way to the blaring horn of a locomotive passing over a bridge that James Taylor (the “Driver”) and Dennis Wilson (the “Mechanic”) drive under. Route 66 is their mission, their way of life. The gear heads speak in a shorthand code. All text and subtext emanates from their car-related patter. They keep all ambition, political thought, and emotion bottled-up — tight. Loyalty exists only as a function of collaboration, but not as an expression of passion, much less one of freedom; that’s something that can only be obtained when the car wheels are in motion.


Autonomy is the name of the game. They make their living by getting into races with lesser drivers they know they can beat. The guys are likable sharks, but sharks nonetheless. In another era, they would have been poker-playing cowboys. In their unpainted 1955 Chevy “One-Fifty” the duo represent throwbacks to the grease-covered, white-t-shirted teen boys of the ‘50s who spent all their money and spare time building hot-rods from interchangeable pieces of American cars dating back decades. A philosophy of universal utility runs through their unfettered logic.


A wisp of a plot seems to emerge after the boys unintentionally take on a hitchhiker — Laurie Bird (“the Girl”) — who climbs into the back seat of their notably uncomfortable parked car; any excess weight caused by luxuries such as upholstery have been removed. She has to share the back seat with a spare wheel. GTO (Warren Oates), a road rival in a mass-produced 1970 yellow Pontiac, baits the trio when he passes them. A gas station meet-up seals the deal for a race to Washington D.C. where the car-owners mail their pink slips for the winner to retrieve. Yet the “race” proves to be a transparent MacGuffin that facilitates the film’s existential examination of America’s social underbelly.


“Two-Lane Blacktop” prompts a dialogue of uncertain expectation with its audience. For a movie about a race, it moves at a snail’s pace. The Girl is enigmatic in her free-willed approach to romance. She dabbles with men as if tasting half-bites from a cheap box of chocolates. Like the film’s male characters, the road is her master too. Warren Oates carries the story’s theme lines — as written by screenwriters Will Cory and Rudolph Wurlitzer. “I’ve got speed to think about,” GTO says before concocting a lie about his imaginary familial relationship to the Driver, the Mechanic, and the Girl. Life is something you make up in the moment, or something you get inside of and drive. As the ancient Chinese proverb goes, “Life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination.”


Rated R. 102 mins.

5 Stars

This website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

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August 31, 2012


Thelma_and_louiseWritten by debut screenwriter Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott “Thelma & Louise” (1991) is a proto-feminist road movie that struck a sensitive nerve in American culture at the time of its release. The movie resonates with a rebellious female intelligence and cathartic revenge against male aggression. Each of the film’s dual protagonists is a victim of rape.

Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) are working-class women living in Arkansas. Louise, the matriarch of the pair, works as a waitress in a diner. Stay-at-home Thelma plays housewife to Darryl (Christopher McDonald), a selfish and demeaning car salesman. Both women are trapped in sociological stereotypes of the era. Thelma can’t bring herself to ask Darryl if she can go on a two-day fishing trip with her best friend, much less announce her modest vacation plans. Louise pointedly asks Thelma if Darryl is her “husband” or her “father.” Such themes of matriarchal and patriarchal definitions run throughout the story. During the film’s first half, Louise has a mothering influence over Thelma before the tables are turned. Thelma eventually takes over the role of mentor to Louise.


A shocking inciting incident arrives in the parking lot of a roadhouse where Thelma and Louise initiate their celebration of liberation from their daily grinds with drinks and dancing. Thelma dances with a seemingly harmless cowboy named Harlan (Timothy Carhart) before he takes her outside for some fresh air. Harlan brutally takes physical advantage of Thelma’s drunken state on the hood of a parked car before Louise comes to Thelma’s rescue with a .38-caliber revolver. Something snaps in Louise when Harlan announces that he “should have gone ahead and fucked” Thelma, before taunting Louise to “suck” his cock. One impulsive moment later, Harlan lies dead from a single gunshot to the heart. The girls’ fishing trip turns into a desperate attempt to escape into Mexico.


The movie grapples with America’s skewed legal system. Louise strikes down Thelma’s suggestion that they go to the police because they can't prove that Harlan tried to rape her. The fact Thelma was seen dancing with her attacker for several hours will obviously lead to the assumption that she led him on. The women decide that their lives will be ruined unless they manage to get out of the country. More so than the outrage expressed by critics for the film’s imagined man-hating agenda, it seems likely that the piece of subtext that got under the skin of right-wing ideologues had more to do with the intrinsic suggestion that “freedom” isn’t what it’s cracked up to be in the old U. S. of A.

Loyalty and friendship between two women who discover beauty, lust, and the wonder of the road is at the heart of “Thelma & Louise.” Their outlaw acts wake them up to feel more existentially fulfilled than they ever have before. Theirs is a full-blooded romantic fantasy that makes the most of a tragic situation. Thelma and Louise are true heroines of the cinema.


Rated R. 130 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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