A Southern Road Film, Unafraid to Embrace Cliché

2010-2-26 (General, indie)

What exactly is the appeal of the “road movie?”

Audiences have made classics out of early examples, like Bonnie and Clyde, but throughout the ’80s and ’90s came more staples — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Rain Man, among others. Comedy, of course, has embraced this trope above all other genres. Tommy Boy, Road Trip, and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle have all entertained teens using the same basic storyline.

The genre has given us thrillers, buddy flicks, and runaway stories. Even The Wizard of Oz is, essentially, a road film.

Something about a road trip makes for good storytelling. Even with the standard plot points of misadventures, close calls, new romances, and meaningful relationships forged after initial tension, the setting leaves room for intriguing bumps along the way.

Something about the wild times or cutesy romantic fun that characters end up having. People watch these moments and, whether they would admit it or not, envy the characters. They might roll their eyes at the sap, they might joke, “ugh, vomit” when someone suggests renting one of these, but inevitably, once people have agreed to watch one of these formulaic road flicks they end up smiling or crying, despite themselves, a la The Notebook. Viewers watch road trip movies and long to experience their own journeys.

In a slightly different vein from the comedies are a number of recent entries into the genre that strive for more seriousness. Wes Anderson’s subdued brotherly train ride through India, The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and the 2009 Dave Eggers-scripted Away We Go are two such examples. The road and the vehicle are mere backdrop for the interpersonal drama, which unfolds slowly and is typically set to mellow, plucky road music. These films require patience and curiosity. They give fewer zany twists, more arguments and awkwardness.

Director Udayan Prasad’s The Yellow Handkerchief, which will run at the USA Film Festival next week, is that sort of film. Yet it is also a character study. Scenes toggle between the present of 2007, in which two young people and a freshly-released convict travel through Louisiana, and the past, in which we see the history of that convict’s volatile relationship with the film’s fourth focus, May (played with gentle allure by Maria Bello, also of A History of Violence).

Brett, the “killer with a heart of gold” is played by William Hurt, who scored a 2005 Supporting Actor nod for his brief, menacing turn as a gangster in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. Hurt provides the movie’s raw emotional power, oftentimes merely through facial expressions, and the movie would be lost without him. Brett takes an immediate interest in the two children, hopping in the convertible with them a bit too willingly, and it is unclear whether he is creepy or kind yet. For a while, the film runs with this doubt, until he emerges as a protective, if not cuddly, father figure.

Kristen Stewart, meanwhile, as Martine, continues to work the look she perfected in the Twilight series: brooding, possibly stoned. She does it with her eyes, and though Martine is merely a more impoverished, less delicate version of Bella the vampire-lover, she isn’t so bad. A romance develops between her and Gordy (Eddie Redmayne, who is currently performing on Broadway in Red alongside Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko). Redmayne’s good looks make his role as a friendless hick only partially convincing. The lack of surprise inherent in such a coupling is tempered by an overly aggressive early moment between them that leaves Martine angry and untrusting. The film deftly mirrors this interaction when we see, in flashback, convict Brett lustily grope May before she’s ready.

The film is adapted from a 1970s short story by the journalist Pete Hamill, and Prasad might have done well to leave it in the ’70s. Characters don’t make any mention of technology anyway; no e-mailing or cell phones here. There are mentions of Katrina, though they add very little. There is a sense that Prasad, in his relocation of the story, is stretching to make the film topical, to force something that is not there.

The Yellow Handkerchief welcomes every cliché of the road movie formula, but still surprises audiences with moments of violence and depth. Stewart and Redmayne are passably interesting as the film’s hot young couple, and the anticipated reunion of Brett and May builds some power, but it is the interaction between Brett and Martine that captivates.

Abrupt shifts in mood and moments of brutal honesty keep things interesting, and keep the movie a few feet off the beaten path.

In its final, redemptive ending scene, audiences might groan as the neat bow is tied around our four characters. But most will allow themselves to smile, and maybe even cry. Cliché or not, it just feels so good.

RATING 7 / 10