Five favourite things: road movies
Well, I haven’t updated as frequently this month. For that you can blame the unusually hot summer we’ve experienced this year in England (they don’t come round too often). But with that in mind, it got me thinking about one of my favourite genres of movie that encapsulates the great outdoors, the open road, and epic journeys.
Yep, the road movie. This post is also the first of a new semi-regular feature called “Five favourite things”. Explanation below.
FIVE FAVOURITE THINGS MANIFESTO: I choose five favourite movie related things. They’re not necessarily a definitive top five (although they’ll be pretty damn good), but things/genres/scenes I have a soft spot for.
So then, road movies…
The Hitcher (1986)
Nope, not the risible remake starring Sean Bean, but the 1986 original starring that guy from the Guinness adverts, Rutger Hauer.
Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell, remember him?) is driving across country when he does something his mother told him never to do… pick up a hitchhiker. Should’ve listened to his mother. In the first five minutes, he lets John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) into his car, and pays for the mistake for the rest of the movie. It’s similar to, but also sillier than Duel, with Ryder constantly tormenting Halsey but never quite killing him.
Even though the guy’s a psycho, Hauer plays him as smirking, enigmatic and complex. A cop comments on the strange relationship between Halsey and Ryder, and he couldn’t be more right, alluding to what appears to be a gay subtext. The Hitcher is as much twisted buddy movie as it is twisted road movie, where only one can survive.
Midnight Run (1988)
Notable for being the first time De Niro attempted something more light-hearted. Midnight Run sees him as a bounty hunter who gets a job to bring in Charles Grodin’s mild mannered accountant, a man who’s ripped off those least forgiving of people, the mob.
When he finds him, it’s a long journey back home via trains and automobiles. I would’ve added planes, but they’re off the itinerary, thanks to Grodin’s character having a debilitating fear of flying. Along the way, they have to evade rival bounty hunters, the FBI, and mafia hitmen.
It’s the sort of film they did so well back in the eighties, with a mismatched pairing eventually finding common ground. De Niro swears a lot, and looks like he’s genuinely having fun in a more comedic role. Not least because Grodin proves to be a great foil.
Beavis and Butt-head Do America (1996)
It’s tasteless, it’s not clever, and it really shouldn’t work. But it does, thanks to our two clueless protagonists, Beavis and Butt-head, promoted from their short animations on MTV to full feature film status.
On a half-cocked mission to retrieve their stolen TV, they snigger, argue, and are oblivious to just about everything around them, unless it’s a chick with big hooters. They run into a couple of crooks played by Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, become wanted by the FBI, say “bunghole” a lot, and make a startlingly astute observation when lost in the desert, dying of thirst.
“The sun sucks!”
Terrence Malick’s debut feature film as director (and writer), they don’t come much better than this. Unlike some of Malick’s subsequent work, it’s a pleasing 94 minutes long with not a single second wasted. The shorter run time certainly doesn’t make it feel like a smaller movie, it’s scenes packed with beautiful shots of forest, rivers, open plains and deep blue skies.
All of this natural beauty is juxtaposed with the murder spree of Kit (Martin Sheen), a James Dean style rebel who has absconded across country with Holly (Sissy Spacek), a girl ten years his junior. Malick never glamourises the violence. It’s often quick, with Holly being a seemingly passive observer for the most part.
I hate voice over narration in movies. They’re often used as crutch when a director appears to lack confidence in their own ability to tell a story visually. But here, Holly’s narration, which covers a vast chunk of the movie, is perfect and never intrudes. She talks of Kit, and their journey, as if she’s writing a homework assignment about the great weekend she’s just had, peppering it with little facts and thoughts on her romance. Her thoughts only occasionally seem to stray towards the reality of her situation.
Vanishing Point (1971)
Named after the point where two parallel lines receding from the observer seem to converge. In this case, the long straight highways of America, as seen from the windscreen of a Dodge Charger. The Charger is a pretty iconic looking car, with no shortage of big and small screen appearances.
In Vanishing Point, the car is put through its paces by the man with no forename, Kowalski (Barry Newman). Why? He’s delivering it from Denver to San Francisco, but bets his drug dealer that he can have the car there in record time, a good two days ahead of schedule.
From there, it’s pretty much pedal to the metal, as Kowalski hits the roads at high speed, incurring the wrath of just about every police officer along the way. But this isn’t just some screwball car chase movie. Sure, there’s a lot of humour in seeing Kowalski make idiots out of the police. But clever use of flashback adds depth to the character, making him more than just a thrill seeker with an anti-authority streak. He becomes a near unstoppable, almost mythical figure. It can only end one way. And what an ending it is.
So what do you think of these five choices? Like them? Loathe them? What would you pick as five favourite road movies?