There is something quintessentially American – or, in the case of Y Tu Mama Tambien, Mexican – about the road trip film. Although there have been valiant British attempts to deal with the drama of the long journey by road (such as Tom Hardy’s Locke), the reality is that journeys up and down the M1 are simply not as inspiring to watch as the competition across the Atlantic.
Yet British and Australian filmmakers have also been driven (no pun intended) to come up with their own visionary takes on the road genre, and these six films run the gamut from genuinely heart-warming coming-of-age comedy to berserk and thrilling post-apocalyptic action. All are very much worth watching.
Thelma and Louise
Not content with having redefined the horror, sci-fi and sword and sandals genres with Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, Ridley Scott made a hugely accomplished road trip film in Thelma and Louise. Helped by a pitch-perfect and Oscar-winning script by Callie Khouri, Scott’s film beautifully combines comedy, drama and thrills as it depicts the headlong flight across America by Geena Davis’s quixotic Thelma and Susan Sarandon’s more down-to-earth Louise. The supporting cast, most notably a pre-fame Brad Pitt as the agent of Thelma’s sexual liberation, are superb, the cinematography (as usual with Scott) is sublime and the score by Hans Zimmer is one for the ages. Plus, no matter how many times you rewatch it, the ending remains as exhilarating and heartbreaking as ever.
Ridley’s brother Tony Scott was one of the few directors to take a script by Quentin Tarantino, rethink it considerably and improve on it in the process. Tarantino’s story of man-child Clarence Worsley (Christian Slater) fleeing across America with a suitcase full of drug money and his girlfriend Alabama (Patricia Arquette) is realised by Scott as a series of unforgettable set-pieces, laden with bloody violence and the darkest of humour. Confrontations between Clarence’s father Clifford (Dennis Hopper) and mobster Coccotti (Christopher Walken) and Alabama and hitman Virgil (James Gandolfini) crackle with tension and wit, and Slater and Arquette make the most appealing of young lovers, even as the show is comprehensively stolen from under them by the all-star supporting cast.
Y Tu Mama Tambien
Before Alfonso Cuarón won Oscars for Gravity and Roma, he made one of the sexiest films of the past two decades in Y Tu Mama Tambien, as young friends Julio and Tenoch take a sexually charged trip through Mexico, accompanied by sophisticated older woman Luisa. As so often with his work, Cuarón’s film is visually sumptuous, full of unexpected undercurrents and served by sublime performances, not least Maribel Verdú as the object of both men’s fascination and attention: she manages to bring Luisa to life and to make her a real person, rather than merely a fantasy object. It introduced filmgoers to Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, who have both gone on to yet greater things, but it is hard to wonder if either has ever really topped their sublime work here.
‘Hold me closer, tiny dancer.’ Elton John has never gone away since his first rise to fame in the Seventies, but it’s doubtful that his music has ever been used more effectively or affectingly as in the centrepiece scene of Cameron Crowe’s music-themed road trip movie, when a band in the midst of falling apart are reunited by singing along to ‘Tiny Dancer’.
Based on the autobiographical story of how Crowe, while still a teenager, accompanied the Allman Brothers Band on tour for Rolling Stone, it is a love letter to Seventies rock, epitomised by the fictional band Stillwater, who are joined on tour by accidental music journalist William Miller, and old-beyond-her-years super-groupie Penny Lane. Crowe won an Oscar for his excellent script, and Kate Hudson deserved one for her sublime performance as Penny, the muse that every band wished they could have.
Mad Max: Fury Road
A confession: I don’t believe that Mad Max: Fury Road is the one-of-a-kind masterpiece that most of its admirers – and there are a lot of them – seem to think it is. But that said, George Miller’s film is still a vast amount of fun, being a full-throttle, endlessly inventive and profoundly kinetic take on the road movie, albeit a road movie in which all the protagonists and their nemeses all have to travel very, very quickly indeed, and perform death-defying stunts while they do so.
Charlize Theron’s performance as the amusingly named Imperator Furiosa more or less defines the term ‘bad-ass’, and all but overshadows Tom Hardy as the film’s nominal protagonist. The only thing that hangs over the film’s success is that Mel Gibson, who played Max in the first three films, is conspicuously offscreen, as he was in the midst of his well-documented exile from Hollywood, before his triumphant return with Hacksaw Ridge.
These days, Sacha Baron Cohen seems something of a one trick pony, doing the same old schtick to increasingly limited effect. But his 2006 film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan exploded into cinemas like a wildly, hysterically politically incorrect hand grenade.
I still remember the press screening I attended months before it came out, in which a hardened audience of critics were reduced to screaming hysteria by the crazed innovation with which Baron Cohen, as the clueless but arrogant Kazakh journalist, travels across America, offending and horrifying everyone who he comes across with his blasé displays of lechery and vulgarity.
I assumed that the vast majority of the encounters were staged, but the many legal actions that ensued after the film’s release suggest otherwise. The chances of anything similar being made in our more watchful and paranoid times seem less than nil, which is a pity, as it would be excellent to see something this funny – and offensive – again.