There's no shortage of road films at the moment. Last year gave us On The Road (and the less said about that the better) and soon we'll get the chance to see On The Road 2. Sorry, I meant Big Sur.
As with most genre films, the road movie plots can be a bit repetitive. This has never been more true than in the road movie. A person/persons go on a road trip, they learn something, and sometimes they die (it is a dangerous thing, stepping out onto the road). With that in mind, I've tried to put together an eclectic rundown of brilliant road movies that you should definitely stick on your 'to watch list'.
Vanishing Point (1971)
Richard C. Sarafian’s cult film rightly earns its place at the top of this list. What little plot there is follows Barry Newman’s car delivery driver, Kowalski as he tears across highways and deserts from Denver towards San Francisco. The film wouldn’t be up to much if he didn’t fall foul of the local law en route. However, our man Kowlski’s been through too much (he was in Vietnam! He was a motorcycle racer! He raced cars! His girlfriend died in a freak surfing accident!) to pull over.
You could argue that maverick Kowalski invited trouble by necking a few benzedrines and betting that he can arrive in San Fran 24 hours before the car’s due, but that’s by the by. What follows is a huge F you to the man as Kowalski drives onwards to a destination he’ll never arrive at, aided by a black small town disk jockey and a pair of naked hippies. Great stuff.
A surreal road journey of the highest order. I remember being genuinely terrified when Pinocchio is kidnapped by Stromboli and later, as he watches the wayward Lampwick turned into a kicking and screeching donkey on Pleasure Island. The scenes of Pinocchio and Geppetto in the belly of the whale are some of the most striking images ever committed to film.
El Topo (1970)
El Topo, a gun fighter dressed in head to toe in black, rides through the desert with his naked infant son. They come across a village, the walls painted with blood, the inhabitants slaughtered. El Topo searches for those responsible then guns them down. Then he leaves his young sun behind with the words ‘Life is cruel. Get used to it’ before riding off with a young woman he has just rescued.
From then on El Topo must journey across the desert in order to defeat four famous gun fighters. Only then will he be the best. A strange film featuring paraplegics, an albino prophet, rabbits, bees, lesbians and dwarfs. It might not be the sort of film you’d watch over and over, but certainly worth seeing at least once.
It might not seem like it now, but there was a time when Terrence Malick films were few and far between. With his first feature, Badlands, Malick set the bar high. The film follows Martin Sheen as a psychotic greaser who charms Sissy Spacek into running away with him on a murderous rampage.
A stone cold classic and the inspiration behind the Tarantino-penned/adapted Natural Born Killers and True Romance. For my money, True Romance (which also plays homage to Carl Orff’s Badlands theme ‘Gassenhauer’) is the better of the two, while Natural Born Killers is the most stylish. Watch all three back to back for a great afternoon. You might feel a bit fed up with society afterwards though.
A homage to Mad Max if ever there was one. Bellflower isn’t a road movie in the strictest sense of the word; instead it’s more of an apocalyptic preparation manual as best pals Woodrow and Aiden prepare for the end of the world by fine tuning their muscle car, Medusa. In between their flights of fantasy the friends fall out, sleep with each other’s girlfriends, go on a road trip in a car with a built-in whiskey dispenser, get hit by cars, build flame-throwers and fight with baseball bats. The film gets a bit nihilistic towards the end and verges into a few experimental alternative endings. My pick would have to be the one where Aiden and Woodrow put aside their differences and roam the country as bandits.
Down by Law (1986)
Apparently ‘the hipster’s film maker of choice’ Jim Jarmusch has been churning out classics for decades. Obviously, the place to start is the seminal ‘Dead Man’, Johnny Depp’s own Breaking Bad (and it’s miles better). Down by Law is a close second to Dead Man and a solid gold road movie classic in its own right. The film is a jailbreak epic that follows Tom Wait’s DJ, John Lurie’s pimp (neither of whom are guilty) and Italian killer Roberto Benigni.
Unlike, say, Papillon, which focuses on just how the jailbreak is going to be carried out, Down by Law focuses on the relationships between the three men and the strains their flight from the law puts on their already fragile relationship. A great film with sharp dialogue, black & white scenery which is still a treat and buckets of genuine tension. A must see.
Valhalla Rising (2009)
Before Drive came Valhalla Rising, Nicolas Winding Refn’s bloody historical saga. Set in 1000 AD, the film follows Norse warrior One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) as he escapes from his captives and falls in with a gang of Christian missionaries. It’s a highly stylised film, full of blood, guts and despair. Ultimately, it’s about a hopeless journey into the unknown (think Apocalypse Now, minus the smell of napalm). The film’s held together on a shoe string of a plot, but the highly visceral visuals say more than any dialogue ever could.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
A classic and almost as good as the novel. The opening drive has to be one of cinema’s most iconic scenes, with Depp at his very best. A dark and twisted journey to the savage heart of the American dream. Don’t stop here, it’s bat country.
The Road to Perdition (2002)
Sam Mendes’ period tale of a mob hitman going on the run to protect his young son. The film stars Tom Hanks at his Castaway/Saving Private Ryan best as well as a great turn from the late Paul Newman. Daniel Craig and Jude Law also turn in great performances as a mob bosses wayward son and a no-good assassin, respectively. However, what really makes The Road to Perdition a true road movie is Conrad Hill’s gorgeous shots of Chicago and the surrounding countryside, for which he received a posthumous Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
Into The Wild (2007)
Sean Penn’s excellent directorial effort takes Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name as its source material. While both attempt to tell the story of Christopher McCandless’ nomadic existence, Penn’s film paints McCandless’ adventures in a slightly more sympathetic light and does its best to encourage its audience to embark upon an adventure of their own.
As you’d expect, the cinematography is beautiful. Scenes of Hirsch climbing through a forest at dusk, or dancing among wild horses, won’t soon be forgotten. Emilie Hirsch is fantastic in the lead role as McCandless/Alexander Supertramp and even lost 40 pounds for the final, heartbreaking scenes earning him a Screen Actor’s Guild nomination for best actor. Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack album is also well worth a listen.