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Film Review: ‘The Road Movie’

Variety logo Variety 5/6/2017 Dennis Harvey
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Somewhere between “Jackass” and “Faces of Death” lies the queasy allure of “The Road Movie.” Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s feature is a found-footage compilation of clips shot by Russian dashboard cameras, then posted online. The episodes cunningly edited together here run a gamut of incidents from road-rage and “crazy person wandering in the road”  to myriad harrowing collisions. Taken together, they comprise a landscape of cruel fate and calamity from which it’s impossible to avert your gaze — though sometimes you may wish you had.

A “That’s Entertainment!” of vehicular horrors, the film has sold to various territories (Oscilloscope picked up North American rights), and will probably generate more than one sequel, official or otherwise, before it finishes its global theatrical tour. A long shelf life in home formats is guaranteed.

Beginning with a series of picturesque but treacherous road views in snowy winter — a wandering cow is the first near-miss — the film catalogs a wide range of moving violations, in every sense of the phrase. Sometimes we get rapid-fire montages of similar events, but more often Kalashnikov lets segments run on uninterrupted, until we begin to dread any long stretch of calm as prelude to some random disaster.

Cars creep perilously along a road through a burning forest. Seemingly abandoned vehicles drift backward, plowing into any occupied auto in their path. Others lose control, ricocheting from barrier to fellow traveler, rolling endlessly, and/or bursting into flame. We see these incidents primarily from the perspective of those who manage to avoid becoming part of the accident, however narrowly.

But not everyone is so lucky: People driving down a one-way street find themselves confronted by an angrily insistent wrong-way driver armed with a sledgehammer. Others are stuck in a traffic jam as armed robbers attack cars in front of them. Bad weather, stray wildlife or demented pedestrians can turn any moment into a potentially life-ending one.

There are some purely bizarre, inexplicable bits, as when a couple of men witness a falling meteor or a crashing plane’s spectacular descent on the horizon, or when a babbling man  deposits himself on the hood of a car and refuses to leave even after the woman driving the vehicle screams at him — and then continues driving.

World-class stupidity is represented by the older woman who uses a butane lighter to illuminate a dim pump at a gas station. (Our dashcam spectators get the hell out of there just as she sets the whole place on fire.) Macho belligerence is frequently on display; taking the cake: one jerk who obstinately interferes with a police arrest, oblivious to the dissuading factors of guns, a huge dog and his own panicked girlfriend.

Despite the often hair-raising nature of what we witness, there’s surprisingly no gore. Kalashnivok either leaves that footage out, or in cases where the point-of-view car is hit, the dashcam naturally doesn’t turn around to record the aftermath.

Sans added commentary or onscreen text (beyond dashcam datelines), “The Road Movie” leaves it up to viewers to supply their own social context, moral lesson or other interpretive framework. Whether the behavior documented reflects on modern Russian society is for Russians to decide — ill-fortune and frayed tempers behind the wheel can occur anywhere. One sequence, though, finds central Moscow traffic frozen by an incident that locals may recognize as an opposition leader’s assassination.

It’s worth noting that dashboard cameras have become very popular in Russia and other former Soviet territories within recent years, partly because they provide evidence in insurance claims, but also because they can be used as protection against police corruption. The specter of corruption certainly seems to arise when a couple confronted with a possibly bogus traffic violation suddenly find themselves surrounded by 10 or more glowering cops.

Perhaps equally disturbing is the blasé response of several participants under extreme circumstances, particularly two dudes who blandly observe, “We’re sailing!” as their car slides off a rural embankment and begins floating down a river. One senses post-Communist Russia is enough of a “Wild East” that no event is too freakish to take some citizens entirely by surprise.

The clips are dated from between 2011 and 2016, with variable but mostly good image quality. While final credits don’t disclose participants’ identities, they do reveal that the episodes have previously been seen by as few as several dozen and as many as seven million viewers online.

Original music is used sparingly but effectively, with most sequences accompanied only by whatever music and verbal exchanges the dashcam caught. Careful not to overstay its welcome, this cleverly edited package proves that some forms of viral entertainment can sustain feature length — although unlike cute cat videos, you probably won’t want to share this very guilty pleasure compilation with Grandma.

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