[18 October 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Perhaps Harmony Korine was right. Perhaps the entire post-adolescent planet is rife with drugged out losers who’d rather drink, smoke, screw and mimic their viral video idols than do anything remotely productive with their pre-living in their parent’s basement lives. Perhaps escape is more important that enterprise. Maybe are we a community so cynical that myths and legends are no longer feared, but instead form the basis of a night’s acid-fueled fun. Maybe we adults dropped the ball. Perhaps there is nothing we could have done to stop it. But as the amazingly effective Toad Road argues, a life lost in the pharmaceutical haze of aimless arrested development is destined to be destroyed, or at the very least, deferred. Of course, it’s also easy to believe that few will find the circumstances scary, since they are absolutely so surreal.
Now, Toad Road has issues. BOY, does it have issues. You have to wallow through a lot of Bam Margera inspired Jack-assery before you even can consider contemplating the movie’s unqualified good stuff. Like the aforementioned Mr. Korine, the opening is like outtakes from Gummo without said film’s anarchic spirit and singular vision. Instead, a group of teens play Uncle Goddamn with each other in hopes that, maybe, some of the self-inflicted shenanigans lead to a kind of personal purpose. They don’t. Primary among these puke and burnt pubes partiers is James (James Davidson), a future statistic who sees nothing wrong with trespassing on other people’s property, eating ‘shrooms, lying to his family mandated therapist, and spelunking while on psychedelics. His pals are equally pathetic.
Into his accidental life accidentally walks Sara (Sara Anne Jones). She’s naive and eager to please, but also a bit baffled by James’ lack of direction. Of course, she too wants to live on the edge, but this sudden desire to slack and drop out inspires our wannabe hero to kind of, sort of, clean up his act. Along the way, an urban legend about something called Toad Road is explored. Apparently, somewhere in the woods near where they live lies an abandoned asylum, and path with several wooden dividers, and what many consider to be the actual Seven Doors of Hell. To walk through one is to take a trip into Satanic madness. For Sara, this is like a siren’s song. She wants to explore the farthest reaches of reality (cue Clive Barker and Hellraiser) while dropping LSD. For all others, Toad Road is ever bit its monstrous myth.
When it comes to ambitions, first time feature filmmaker Jason Banker has a wealth of them. He wants Toad Road to be both as symbol of our souring society as well as a found footage like glimpse into the evil that exists everywhere. Just as David Lynch did with Wild at Heart (deconstructing The Wizard of Oz into a mindf*ck maelstrom of ‘be careful what you wish for’ fulfillments)and Korine did with the recent Spring Breakers, he takes an established genre conceit and twists it all out of shape. He then throws in a ton of mood, atmosphere to get lost in, and, frankly, a bit too much character crudeness. The first 15 minutes are literally spent with full frontal dudes getting their junk lit on fire via their friends (and you thought Johnny Knoxville pushed the envelope). Before Sara shows up, and the legend in question, there is more mindless chatter about “gettin’ high” and acting the fool.
Of course, one must remember that all urban legends are merely cliched cautionary tales in disguise. The hook hanging from the parked car door is to remind promiscuous teens what could happen when they decide to neck instead of play nice, and numerous rumors about lepers in the kitchen are merely corporate espionage gone gonzo. Here, the story of Toad Road is meant as an explanation, of sorts, a way to examine the lingering effects of mental despair (the asylum), addiction and drug use without going to low budget Requiem for a Dream extremes. Let’s face it, it’s also meant to keep kids out of abandoned buildings and places that they don’t belong in. Like all illegal substances, parents love to lambast their offspring, suggesting the far too simplistic “Just say NO!” Banker goes the extra step and gives us a solid visual representation why.
It also helps that Banker employs a documentary like cinema verite style to his storyline. He also allowed his “actors” to improvise most of their dialogue, which furthers the feel of authenticity. There are times, before all…Hades…breaks loose where we get a feel for what it’s like to be in James and Sara’s life. We experience the fuzzy highs and depressive lows right along with them. This is not an attempt to ape The Blair Witch Project or other first person, you are there ideals. Instead, Banker appears to be setting up a scenario by which we actually share in the experience, not play voyeuristic bystander. Unlike these other films, there’s a definite style to the hand held dynamic, balanced well with the standard cinematic shorthands.
In the end, there will be some who see Toad Road as being too much about the party and not enough about the paranormal. Others will opine that there was no way these two divergent elements were ever going to come together in a completely satisfying way. On ambition alone, Jason Banker and his cast deserve a lot of credit. With just a basic idea and an artistic approach, they’ve made something unique, a mash-up of meanings that, when viewed through the proper perspective (and set of expectations) can be both satisfying and scary. You may not lose any sleep over the situations in Toad Road, but the urban legend itself (and how this film visualizes it) may be enough to creep you out. If not, the decline of Western Civilization that we see in the action of these hopelessly hedonistic characters will definitely be enough to disturb your rest.