The Roads Not Taken

Leo leans on Molly's shoulder

For middle aged people wondering what the hell happened to the great life they were going to have, where the hell it all went wrong, The Roads Not Taken is your film, but don’t come to it expecting uplift.

Javier Bardem plays Leo, a guy living a life of extreme misery in New York. Floored by what might be a stroke, he needs help to do the most basic everyday things and gets it mostly from his devoted daughter (Elle Fanning), who matter of factly sorts out Leo when he pisses his pants at the dentist and then loses her job because caring for dad has been taking up too much of her time. Misery loves company.

Things are not going well. Leo, for his part, barely notices any of this. He’s barely in the real world and is instead living two parallel fantasy lives, imagining, we imagine, what the “roads not taken” might have yielded if he had taken them.

In one contrary imagineering to his actual grim existence he’s living out in the desert in Mexico, towards the end of a tempestuous affair with the firecracker Dolores (Salma Hayek). In another he’s a globetrotting writer whose restless spirit has brought him to a Greek island, where a beautiful young woman (Milena Tscharntke) has caught his eye, prompting the much older Leo to embark on a pursuit that looks foolish.

A relationship ending and another beginning, there’s a certain symmetry. And a lot of beauty. These parallel, other lives – they might be alternate realities, or could possibly just be the result of a fevered imagination, or Leo’s medication – have been chosen for their picturesqueness and DP Robbie Ryan (who has Slow West, American Honey and Marriage Story on his CV alongside a stack of work for Ken Loach) pulls out the stops to make everything look gorgeous. How many picture postcards and holiday snaps have there been of Greek islands sparkling in an azure sea? Or from Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico? Both get plenty of exposure here.

Salma Hayek and Javier Bardem in a car
Meanwhile, in Mexico… 

Apart from 1992’s Orlando, Sally Potter’s films don’t usually break through into the mainstream. And yet she has a way of both getting great talent to work for her and of getting great work from the talent she gets. This is one of those films where the screenplay (also by Potter) doesn’t say it all. The actors are expected to fill in the missing gaps, and do. Laura Linney is “the woman” in the actual, miserable reality of Leo’s life, the ex wife scarred by bitterness. Hayek, so often required to be little more than a cartoon (it’s the figure), is also nuanced and complex, suggesting a woman of great passion nursing a great loss. Tscharntke, as the hot young thing Leo’s getting into a terrible state over in Greece, is in star-is-born territory. Elle Fanning, so good at playing the anxious insecure young woman, gets plenty of opportunity to do so here. And Bardem, playing essentially three different people who happen to look alike and share the same name, resists the urge to make a meal of it.

Is Leo imagining all this – those locations do seem a bit tourist-obvious – and does it matter? Are these fantasies enriching his miserable current life? How is this all going to resolve itself? Where is it all going?

Gently, ever so gently, there is movement. In the real, here-and-now world of Costco trousers and New York taxis, a chink of optimism. Which is handy because without it this film would be very hard work indeed, the gulf between Leo’s elaborate fantasies and his grim daily existence being simply too wide.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Dad rages at John


Lance Henriksen has built a career on genre movies in which he was required to do little more than turn up and be Lance Henriksen – a big growling badass. It’s great to see him doing some actual acting, which is what he’s called on to do in Falling, a movie written and directed by Viggo Mortensen, who co-stars.

Henriksen is the dad whose creeping dementia means he’s now increasingly reliant on his son, John (Mortensen), which is awkward for both of them since dad Willis (Henriksen) is a raging homophobe who can just about keep it in check… and John is married to a man (Terry Chen).

Dad is now in the “godforsaken shithole” of California – a state full of “fags” and “pansies” – because he’s no longer able to keep things going back at the farm. Dad isn’t just a homophobe, he’s a full-bore reactionary. “This Picasso fellow, he may have been a commie greaseball that painted like a retard,” Willis opines on an art gallery outing, “But I bet he had his pick of all the foreign pussy.”

By contrast, the son is a saint, Mortensen doing well as the guy who has decided that forebearance is the best policy, a decision that’s put to the test every time dad opens his mouth.

Good chunks of the film take place in flashback, where dad recalls John’s early years as a time of bonding on sun-dappled fishing or hunting trips, while his son remembers his dad being an asshole who was actually even worse back then, when being an asshole male was more acceptable.

Big rangy Henriksen is a very plausible father to big rangy Mortensen – both have Nordic ancestry – and is a lot more nuanced in his performance than he might have been. There’s humour in his line delivery. On hearing that he needs a prostate examination, Henriksen growls “I”m not letting some California fairy up my ass” in a way that made the corners of my mouth twitch. That “California fairy” is played, incidentally, by David Cronenberg in a fleeting cameo. Well, if someone’s going to stick a finger up there, you might as well get the master of the macabre – a humorous piece of casting by Mortensen, a regular collaborator with Cronenberg (his director in Eastern Promises, A History of Violence and A Dangerous Method).

Laura Linney also turns up in a brief performance freighted with the same sort of “coping with dad” nervousness that John displays, as the daughter keeping things perpetually bright and bubbly in an attempt to head dad off at the pass of his own rages.


Young John and dad on a hunting trip
Happy days? Young John and his dad on a hunting trip


Henriksen was 80 when this was made and has probably seen people close to him losing their minds to dementia. He is particularly good in moments where Willis goes to grasp for something in his mind, only to find, again!, that it isn’t there. I’d have liked more of that because, great though Henriksen is – and this is entirely his film, not Mortensen’s – things do get a touch one-note after a while, when dad launches into his latest tirade.

If you want a film about a horrible old man who, in his youth turned out to have been even more horrible, this is it. There are suggestions here and there of a different sort of film, one that interrogates more forensically the “fags” and “pansies” of our modern world and even finds something admirable in this tough old survivor. When John asks his dad not to spark up a cigarette in the living room because “we don’t allow smoking in the house”, you’re momentarily with the old guy.

There are moments of visual poetry too, unexpectedly, in beautifully composed “pillow shots” (as Ozu called them), little cutaways to a moment stolen from nature, away from the raging. They are interesting arthouse additions and beautiful in their own way, though not entirely of a piece with the rest of the film, which is more an exercise in straight, traditional storytelling. This is Mortensen’s writing and directing debut. Which way is he going to go next?







© Steve Morrissey 2021