Nothing will ever beat the classic heroes journey where our protagonist must strike out on the road to fulfil their goal. It’s a story as old as time itself; flashback a few millennia we see early man gathered round a fire hungry, eager and waiting. A dishevelled man enters the group, they all turn to look at him anxiously “Where’s the food?” they say. Battle worn but exuding an aura of enlightenment the man replies, “I don’t have it but you’ll never guess what happened to me!” He then regales them with how his initial hunt for food turned into a bitter fight for survival as he battled nature and the elements on his way. And yes this is historically accurate, just ask your history teacher.
So just what is it about these primordial stories that keep us hooked? We never seem to tire of them. Now don’t get me wrong, we can tell the ‘road trip’ story poorly (thinking of 2002’s Bucket List here) but more often than not its done well and sometimes magnificently (The Motorcycle Diaries, Thelma & Louise, The Road to Perdition, Badlands, even Goonies!!). Perhaps it’s by virtue of their primal simplicity these stories resonate with us so strongly. No need for fancy interweaving storytelling here or even stylish multi-layered approach. The pitch would be this; man has a problem man goes on the road to solve said problem, no matter the outcome man is irreversibly changed by the very journey itself. We’re talking classic Golden Fleece stories here, essentially unchanged since the mythological hero set off on the Argo for his golden prize.
All these stories are the same at its core it’s the writers and directors imagination that allow countless permutations of this tale from Tarantino’s True Romance to Shrek! We love watching our hero stumble along the road meeting a plethora of characters along the way. It’s exciting seeing them face incredibly tough obstacles and by the end of the film we’re often in awe of their transformation. Perhaps even a little surprised by it, we now know something about them that wasn’t entirely visible in the beginning. I for one am constantly enthralled by these stories. Walter Salle’s recent adaptation On The Road whilst falling short of his Motorcycle Diary brilliance still had a sense of adventure.
We adore a good adventure, something that transports us where we as the audience really become the protagonists sharing their journey, where will this road take us? How does it all end? We could easily be talking about life itself here but hey I’m no philosophy major. I just know that there’s something deeply rooted in these questions that peak our interest.
From a filmmakers perspective the road movie makes a great debut feature because of its simplicity. Your journey could be anywhere it doesn’t necessarily have to be across continents as was the case in Peter Weir’s The Way Back. The Goonies saw a group of kids running around their local sewers but it was all we needed and it worked well. Perhaps a contributory factor to the films success was because of its fascinating character parts. This is another key ingredient for any good road movie and why it makes an excellent debut for a first time director. You have great character parts to add to your story. Tarantino’s first feature was meant to be True Romance before he gave the screenplay to Tony Scott who directed it. Now look at True Romance, think back on the great character parts in that film. Gary Oldman in a knockout performance as seedy pimp Dexter Spivey, Christopher Walken as a cold blooded mafia boss, James Gandolfini as mafia hit man, and these aren’t even the main characters! Even Brad Pitt crops up in there; legend has it he wanted to play any part just to be involved with the project. These character parts make your project attractive to actors. The characters are more three dimensional than your usual film script because what is vital in a road movie is for each character to serve a purpose. They can either assist the protagonist on their journey or obstruct them. Sometimes they seem to do both, either way they have an impact on us that is often profound. This was certainly the case with Rob Reiner’s 1986 movie and one of my all time favourites Stand By Me. An adaptation of Stephen King’s The Body, the story on the surface is so simple, a group of kids in the 50’s set out to find a dead body one weekend. That’s all! No aliens, no bullet time special effects, just four kids searching for a missing body. Yet each kid adds a layer to the film that adds to its timeless quality. The film is also notable for being one of River Phoenix’s most memorable performances as teen hoodlum Chris Chambers. Actors today don’t get many chances to win awards so when juicy character parts come along they swoon over them, and what better place to find plentiful character parts than a road movie. For filmmakers once actors are excited about working on a project then the finance soon follows.
We will never quite satiate our appetite for the road movie. We’re all living our own little road movie, how we got to where we are today the friends and characters we met along the way, and how will it end?? Doesn’t even bear thinking about, at least not for me! For now fill my glass with whisky and filmmakers keep those road movies coming strong and fast.