The Evolution of the Road Movie

For a long time in cinema, filmmakers have become almost obsessed with the concept of driving. Why do we drive? Is it more than just to get to a physical place? In films, the road does more than provide a pathway to a location… its daunting length gives the person driving down it time to think. There are few better times to properly think than while doing something as menial as driving. Driving allows clarity, whether we’re the one driving or simply a passenger. When you’re with a passenger, you have time to talk, discuss things, which can be useful. When we’re alone, we have time to think about whatever issues are pressing us, which can be helpful. And all the while, we’re not bored because we also have to concentrate on driving.

I haven’t seen a lot of road movies, so perhaps I’m not the best person to be discussing them, but I think I understand what makes them tick, and what’s so attractive about them. Let’s start with the 1969 classic Easy Rider, which was the quintessential road movie. What was it about? What did we learn from it? Sure, it managed to capture such a magical period of time when everyone was carefree and just lived for the sake of living. There were no worries about the economy or anything… it was an almost perfect period, according to many. Easy Rider encapsulates that feeling perfectly. We see two men on motorcycles, driving… where? Anywhere? Sure, there’s a destination, but as with so many road movies, as the film progresses, the destination becomes less important and what becomes more vital is the relationship between the character/s and the road. What freedom has the person or people gained from being out on the open road? I think it’s the freedom from business. From the life of the city, or the sometimes ingratiating normality of home. Just being somewhere, constantly moving, without worries, allows a person to have so much mental clarity, and vision.

Both of Terence Malick’s 1970s films, Badlands and Days of Heaven dealt with the feeling of being on the road, but also added in a different element: being on the run. Particularly in Badlands, which was about two criminals fleeing from the police (a topic revisited with more disturbing clarity of vision in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers). Here, the person still has the freedom of the road, but are fighting to keep it from being taken away from them. The road is almost a key protagonist itself, giving the characters a breath of fresh air and allowing them to simply run.

One of my favourite road movies is not strictly a road film. Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, my favourite film of the entire 1980s decade. It only becomes a “road” film in the second half, which is an interesting approach. At first it explores the mundane boredom of real life, but once the three protagonists escape to the road, their luck changes. The mood doesn’t dramatically shift, but it’s clear they’ve acquired some freedom they didn’t previously have.

In recent years, the road movie has become slightly more prominent: not essentially the prospect of a “driving” movie, but just the idea of traveling. Going places, sometimes to reach a destination or simply just to escape. Travel itself has always been a curious concept; it makes sense to want to visit different places, but is there some deep seated desire to escape, rooted in our want to travel? Though many of us don’t admit it, the want to travel can sometimes be synonymous with the want to escape.

A film that personifies this feeling absolutely perfectly is one I’ve talked about many times. But it has been a while since I last mentioned it, so I think now is as good as ever to bring it up again. Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny is easily my favourite road movie of the 21st century. Most people associate it with its infamous unsimulated sex scene, but that’s ignorant and irrelevant. The sex scene takes up only 2 minutes of the film’s 92 minute run time, and it’s hardly an important or momentous event, in my opinion. The first hour of the film sees Gallo driving, and doing little else. Occasionally he stops and talks to a stranger, but never for very long. During the first viewing, we don’t understand why so much emphasis is placed on the importance of the driving scenes, but after finding out the film’s big twist and watching the film a second time, it all becomes so hauntingly clear. I won’t spoil the twist, but I will say that, yes, Gallo’s character drives to escape. He has deep seated mental issues he so desperately wants to put behind him, and since he is a good driver, he sees driving as a way of fleeing these problems. So many characters do.

The idea of being in a different location is the simplest form of the reason for travel. We travel to be somewhere else. The road movie is an attempt to harvest these emotional wants, this instinct to feel the need to transport, into a physical being or situation. This is why I think so many of us connect so strongly with the road movie, and why films like Easy Rider and Stranger than Paradise have become favourites among cult movie fans. Because all those thousands of years ago, there were the things man needed to do, such as eat and reproduce. But there was also one big thing they wanted to do, something that has never escaped us, and that all of us still feel the urge to do every day: move.

Those are my thoughts. What do you think? Was my rant all rubbish, or did I have a point? What are some of your favourite road movies? Leave a comment below.

Posted on November 25, 2011, in Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. I agree that a good road movie evokes strong emotions of visiting new places, seeing new faces, and escaping from the dreariness of everyday life. Sadly, there hasn’t been a good road movie in many years!

    • You’re right, there hasn’t been a good one in such a long time. I think LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and SIDEWAYS are the last two I can remember.

  2. While I enjoyed this article, reminded me that I still need to see Badlands and Days of Heaven, I must say I was shocked to see The Brown Bunny as your choice for favorite road movie. I finally got around to seeing the film a few months ago and hated everything up to the twist. The twist was interesting but was not strong enough to make up for how plodding the first hour is. The film felt like a huge step backwards from Gallo’s previous films.

    • Hehehe you’re obviously new to this blog. I like films like THE BROWN BUNNY – not in the sex sense (there are a lot of films with unsimulated sex I don’t like, such as 9 SONGS), but I love how well Gallo communicates the feeling of isolation that can come from travelling. The relationship between him and Sevigny is so interestingly presented; it’s obviously very passionate physically, but it also seems to be a tad masochistic. And of course the twist puts the whole thing into perspective (and makes a second viewing of the film SOOOO much better) and gives a reason for Gallo’s loneliness and isolation. I thought it was a profoundly moving film – certainly not as good as Gallo’s other films, notably my personal favourite BUFFALO 66, but a nice change for him, and an incomparably special indie film. I think it’s my favourite road movie, but in general it pales in comparison to films like EASY RIDER and STRANGER THAN PARADISE (the latter of those being one of my ten favourite films of all time).

  3. What about Road Trip????

    HAHA I am just messing. Easy Rider is such a great movie for sure. I am not convinced I will get around to see Brown Bunny. But you keep on flogging it enough I might buy into it

    • Don’t think BROWN BUNNY is your kind of film anyway. Doubt you would like it, but then again, doubted you’d like films like TURIN HORSE and here we are!

  4. Great article Tyler. It’s interesting you mention Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise…he made a few films that weren’t really road movies but hinted at the genre – Down By Law’s on the run convicts, Night on Earth’s various taxi journeys, Broken Flowers’ tour around the country…

    …I’m a huge fan of the genre myself, crucially because it often utilises a small expanse of time that can be as little as an hour of plot time or perhaps a day or two. I love films that can compact a story into a short space of time. I also love how road movies, when they are used effectively, subtly takes their characters on the physical and metaphorical journey towards a goal. It often makes for some of the most fascinating character-based films. Recently, I loved both Little Miss Sunshine and Sideways. My favourite is possibly Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail or John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I also love Something Wild, Paper Moon, Sullivan’s Travels, Midnight Cowboy, The Sure Thing, The Blues Brothers, Dumb and Dumber…blimey, there are so many. I did a comedy road trip list here a while back:

    • I think Jarmusch did have a thing for road movies. It shows up in a lot of his films.

      Those are some great films you’ve listed. Surprised that I forgot to give MIDNIGHT COWBOY a mention.

  5. Other movies I can remember – Vanishing Point and Death Proof.

  6. Hi, Tyler and company:

    Happy post Tryptophan Coma Day!

    Cool post and article.

    ‘Easy Rider’ is a definite shoo-in. I’m with micca on ‘Vanishing Point’ and ‘The Last Detail’. Good catches!

    Would also add “Midnight Run’ and an early Gene Hackman and Al Pacino no budget gem from the 1970s titled ‘Scarecrow’ to the mix.

    • Thanks Jack.

      Oh how I LOVE MIDNIGHT RUN. It is a classic for all ages. My Dad showed me it years ago and I’ve loved it ever since. Haven’t seen SCARECROW.

  7. My favorite road movies are Little Miss Sunshine, Thelma And Louise, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Planes Trains & Automobiles, and Rain Man.

    @ Jack Deth-Nice pick on Scarecrow 🙂 Really good movie with one of my favorite Al Pacino performances.

  8. Christian Hallbeck

    The two best road movies I’ve seen is “Wild Strawberries” by Bergman and “The Stolen Children” by the italian director Gianni Amelio.

    For me a road movie is about the revolution and maturity of the hero’s soul, when traveling from one place to another. The geographical aspect is thus secondary to the better life for the hero and his environment that is the outcome of this self-enlightenment.

  9. Christian Hallbeck

    By the way, Tyler: last night they showed a documentary on one of your favourite actresses, Isabelle Huppert, on swedish public television. It can be viewed on The program is called K special. It’s texted in swedish. But you’ll probably enjoy it anyway!

  10. I am hoping the new On the Road movie, with Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Viggo Morgensten and Terrence Howard, will be on your list! I can not wait to see it!

  11. Good article, but I wonder have you watched any Wim Wenders? He seems to be one of the go to guys for road movies. Or at least movies that feature a road trip at some point.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: