Telling the grim story of two truckers who travel across America with a tough hooker as their passenger, Road Movie epitomizes the New Hollywood aesthetic, even though its level of notoriety is infinitesimal compared to that of similar films by, say, Monte Hellman and Bob Rafelson. As cowritten and directed by the adventurous Joseph Strick, Road Movie is a dark meditation on the circumstances of unfortunate people whose pursuit of independence leads nowhere. There’s a reason the blunt title works—for the characters in Road Movie, life is all about leaving the pain of yesterday behind while chasing the possibilities of tomorrow.
Road Movie opens by introducing Janice (Regina Baff), a jaded young woman new to the skin trade. Older hookers laugh as she hustles drivers at a truckstop, and she pathetically drops her price in half just to turn a trick. Janice quickly discovers the danger of working the trucker circuit: Since drivers feel invulnerable inside their rigs, many of them abuse Janice as she moves from town to town, one rough ride at a time. Enter Gil (Robert Drivas) and Hank (Barry Bostwick), two young partners trying to make a go of their independent trucking operation. They hire Janice, and then Gil—a cocksure bastard who rants about not wanting to pay union dues, because why should he pay to support other people’s healthcare—slaps Janice around for a thrill while screwing her. Hank has a gentler way about him, but Janice rightly calls him on his choice to align himself with a son of a bitch.
As Road Movie trundles along, the three have experiences that can’t rightly be called adventures—more like travails. Janice punishes Gil by yanking the power cord on the refrigerator car the boys are hauling, ruining an entire load of meat. And when the guys get into a brawl with other truckers, Janice comes to the rescue by whipping out a straight razor and slashing the guys’ attackers. Gradually, we learn what pushed Janice onto the road, and what compelled Gil and Hank to start their own business. One of the film’s tricky implications is that Janice, the character who endures the most self-inflicted humiliation, might be the only one who sees the world clearly—until she goes completely insane, that is.
It’s hard to say whether Road Movie “works” in any conventional sense, because it seems Strick was after something more than a morality tale, although Road Movie has that sort of a narrative shape. The picture achieves its greatest impact by presenting specific characters in specific situations as a means of asking difficult questions. What is ambition? What is freedom? What is human connection? Is the portrayal of Janice feminist or misogynistic? Are Gil and Hank antiheroes or merely facets of the same prism as Janice? Is the horrific finale literal or figurative? To some degree, the answers to these questions don’t matter, because sparking the viewer’s imagination is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Aiding Strick greatly in his peculiar endeavor are the leading performers, each of whom commits to an unsympathetic character. Yet it’s Strick’s seemingly endless directorial curiosity that drives this piece: Frame after frame of Road Movie juxtaposes vignettes about three sad people with disheartening POV shots looking out truck windows at ugly commercialization littering Middle America’s thoroughfares.
Road Movie: GROOVY