Film editor Aram Avakian made his solo directorial debut with this uncompromising phantasmagoria, which was slapped with an “X” rating during its original release. Telling the story of a young man who goes insane after receiving his master’s degree—thus tapping into the zeitgeist of youth-culture ambivalence toward American ideals in the Vietnam era—End of the Road features assaultive editing patterns, crass images, pummeling sound effects, and stylized performances. It’s a deliberately bizarre experience, derived from a 1958 novel by John Barth that fits somewhere on a continuum with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Unlike the movies adapted from those books, one of which is an admirable misfire and one of which is a stone classic, Avakian’s End of the Road doesn’t strike a nerve so much as it gets on one’s nerves. The picture is filled with dynamic visuals, impassioned performances, and offbeat themes, but the style of the piece is so aggressively ugly and weird that it’s a chore to watch.
Plus, like most counterculture-era films, End of the Road is best defined in terms of what it shuns. The movie avoids conventional storytelling tropes and “traditional” American values at every turn, so it’s something of a position paper railing against the Establishment, delivered in the confrontational and fractured idiom of the generation that brought psychedelia into the mainstream. There’s a germ of something human buried inside the trippy flourishes, but good luck latching onto that simple core while enduring headache-inducing montages.
Stacy Keach stars as Jacob Horner, who walks from his graduation ceremony to a nearby railway station, where he stands in a catatonic state for what appears to be several days before the arrival of a concerned psychiatrist, Doctor D (James Earl Jones). Combative and sarcastic, Doctor D drags Jacob to a facility called “The Farm,” where Doctor D lets lunatics play out their fantasies as a form of therapy. (One patient cross-dresses as a nun, one endures S&M abuse while crucified, and one rapes a chicken.) Doctor D leads Jacob through harsh therapy sessions complete with heavy audiovisual gimmicks and occasional physical punishment. Then he declares Jacob cured and ready for a job.
Jacob bullshits his way into a gig teaching English at a university, soon befriending fellow teacher Joe Morgan (Harris Yulin) and Joe’s long-suffering wife, Rennie (Dorothy Tristan). Joe’s a weirdo who spends most of his time wearing a Boy Scout uniform, and he’s prone to slapping Rennie around. Jacob begins an affair with Rennie, and their loveplay includes a strange scene of spying on Joe while he thinks he’s alone—as Jacob and Rennie watch from a hiding place, Joe shoves a gun in his mouth and pantomimes suicide, then masturbates while reciting Shakespeare. Meanwhile, Jacob exhibits loopy behavior of his own, at one point parading around in a toga. Eventually, the story resolves with a painfully detailed abortion scene.
Avakian, who also edited the picture, benefits from the participation of cinematographer Gordon Willis, who notched his first feature credit with this picture; Willis’ muscular images impose coherence onto the madness of the onscreen events. Avakian also makes ample use of Jones, Keach, and Yulin, all of whom provide frightening levels of intensity. Still, the big question remains: Is End of the Road anything more than a hearty fuck-you to normalcy? Further, even though time has not lessened the film’s ability to shock, has time erased the relevance of the narrative—or whatever it is that Avakian employs in place of a narrative? The answers to those questions are very much in the eyes of the beholder. Nonetheless, thanks to its mercilessly abrasive textures, End of the Road is bold and innovative filmmaking that’s deeply evocative of a certain time. While far from essential, it’s at the very least emblematic.
End of the Road: FREAKY