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.

The Roads Not Taken – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

11 February 2013-02-11

Out in the UK This Week






Beasts of the Southern Wild (StudioCanal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

It’s generated a gazillion column inches, tweets and web-posts, and you are now pretty much obliged to see what is effectively a 21st century Huckleberry Finn story, set in the entirely atmospheric waterworld of the bayou below the levees where hardscrabble folk scratch out an existence, preferring near poverty in the Gulf of Mexico to destitution in the big city. Realism and magic realism aren’t natural stylistic partners – scenes of incoming storms ravaging the bayou sit alongside shots of the mythical beast the aurochs – but director Benh Zeitlin gets them to dance using six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis as a bridge. Her performance is Oscar-tipped, though at least 50 per cent of it is clever editing – it’s not really acting when she’s not reacting to another person, is it? Old-bugger carping aside, the acting is super-believable in this poignant one-off of a film, so good in fact that it’s fed all that “poverty porn” criticism, little more than trolling by people who can’t spot the difference between reality and stuff that’s been made up.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – at Amazon


The House I Live In (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

“Kill the poor – that’s what the war on drugs has become.” Former journalist David Simon, creator of The Wire, is one knowledgeable, erudite talking head among many in Eugene Jarecki’s US-focused, sober, well researched, thoughtful and opinionated documentary that should be compulsory viewing for governments the world over. Whether you buy the central thesis – that drug laws have always been about keeping certain racial groups in check – is immaterial. When the film gets down to the human nitty gritty such as the guy who’s doing life without parole for 3oz of meth (“I fucked up. But I don’t think I should die for it.”) it’s hard not to be convinced, if you weren’t already, that something is seriously wrong with US government policy. And that of the rest of the world, incidentally, since nearly everyone toes the same line.

The House I Live In – at Amazon


Elena (New Wave, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

The great Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev specialises in thrillers that look and feel like anything but. Elena, coming after 2003’s The Return and 2007’s The Banishment, is the latest, a completely gripping story of a former nurse, now the patronised wife of a rich older guy, and her entirely feckless son and grandson back in the Stalin-era tower blocks. If this sounds like the set-up to an allegory about the Soviet and post-Soviet state, you’re not wrong. But there’s absolutely no need to engage at that level at all if you don’t want to. Instead sit back and be entertained by Zvyagintsev’s expressive long shots and frugal, crystalline story-telling.

Elena – at Amazon


Stitches (Kaleidoscope, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Here’s a low-budget teen slasher movie full of Irish irreverence, played for laughs, and really benefiting from the presence of Ross Noble – a comedian whose surreal, stream-of-consciousness shtick can wear thin after a while. But not here, in fact Noble’s energy is vital in the role of the extremely unpleasant clown back from the dead and out for payback from the kids (now lairy teenagers) who accidentally caused his death some years before. Lots of yuks, most of them very funny, with the slo-mo inevitability and ingenuity of the Final Destination franchise at its best – though I don’t remember anyone in those films having his intestines unravelled like strings of pink sausages. As I say, very funny.

Stitches – at Amazon



Ginger & Rosa (Artificial Eye, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Such is the prestige of director Sally Potter that she can haul in Annette Bening and Christina Hendricks, Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall to fill in tiny supporting roles in a small quiet film that really doesn’t need them. And very off-putting they are too. But once you’ve adjusted the polarising filter on your star goggles, this drama set in the bohemian 1960s London of duffel coats, Dave Brubeck and “Ban the Bomb” marches really takes hold. Elle Fanning and Alice Englert are the titular Ginger and Rosa, a pair of teenagers who have been friends since birth, each now being tugged a different way by politics and hormones. But Alessandro Nivola is the pivot of the drama, playing a 1960s chancer working the zeitgeist entirely for his own shifty ends. It’s a truly excellent performance. But then so are those by Fanning and Englert (and, alright, Bening, Hendricks, Platt and Spall).

Ginger & Rosa – at Amazon


The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Entertainment One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Like a throwback to those John Hughes teenage comedies full of smart dialogue and with a soundtrack to match, The Breakfast Club, say, this charming coming-of-age-in-the-80s drama is about clever teenagers learning about, you know, stuff. Pretty in Pink isn’t on the soundtrack but all the rest (Smiths, Bowie, Cocteaus, Dexys doing “Come on Eileen”) are present and correct. Logan Lerman stars as the geeky guy in the yadda yadda plot but the cultural antenna will be twitching as Emma Watson steps out in her first post-Potter role, playing someone on the cute side of out-and-out bitch. Which she does tentatively, ably, perhaps afraid to let rip in case people confuse actor and role. Am I being kind?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – at Amazon



Sinister (Momentum, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/Download)

Ethan Hawke lends some glitter to this very familiar though undeniably upscale horror – haunted house meets Spanish gothic – about a true-crime writer swallowed by the story he’s working on, in the house where the brutal murder of an entire family took place. There’s a nice shot of the family, sacks over their heads, their legs flailing like beetles’, dying as the opening credits roll. Shot on what’s meant to be Super 8 (which features heavily) it’s a tasty opener for a film that isn’t that frightening (OK, a couple of jumps) but does know all about atmosphere.

Sinister – at Amazon


© Steve Morrissey 2013