River Road (2022)
I was asked to review River Road by an Ohio producer, although he is the lone Ohio connection and it was filmed in British Columbia, so it doesn’t exactly count as an official Ohio indie. It’s written and directed by Rob Willey, a Canadian commercial and music video director with one previous feature credit, 2016’s Dark Cove, a horror thriller with a budget of only $25,000. Willey is definitely a talented visual stylist, that much is apparent from watching clips of his shorts or the trailers for his movies. He sure makes a pretty picture. My issue with River Road as a drama is that the plot, characterization, and structure felt not nearly on par with the alluring visuals.
Travis (Cody Kearsley, Daybreak) is a Vancouver guitarist living a wild life of drugs, sex, and rock and roll. He meets Zoe (Lexi Redman) at his journaling spot while he’s luxuriating at a friend’s home on the eponymous River Road. She’s an American visiting a friend and over the course of a party they hook up in more ways than one. Zoe’s cocaine ends up being heroin and now both become inexorably tied together, two addicts sinking lower and relying upon one another for support. Travis empties his bank account, sells his belongings, including his prized guitar, and then considers increasingly risky crime to be able to afford more drugs. This brings him and Zoe to their most dangerous option: robbing local drug lord, Fresno (Steven Roberts), and making a very bad man a very clear enemy who will want very real and violent vengeance.
In short, I found these characters to be insufferable. This is billed as a crime movie but it’s really more of an addiction narrative following the descent of two people into more desperate and self-destructive behavior. As an addiction narrative, it’s best to start with some tangible semblance of what the “before times” are like so we have a baseline to contrast with the damaging effects of drug abuse. If we followed a story about a deranged homeless man with alcoholism who suddenly started using crack, that’s not enough of a dramatic contrast to effect much added drama and tension. This is the first error of River Road. Our introduction to Travis is that he’s a traveling hedonist, playing in a rock band and going through women like water. He has a montage about “getting clean” after the band’s last tour but this literally lasts minutes before he’s right back to snorting cocaine at the local parties (maybe we have different definitions of “clean”). With Zoe, we have one meet-cute first encounter, and then she’s already at the same party snorting cocaine and introducing Travis to heroin. This all happens fifteen minutes into the movie, so not enough time to effectively establish a “before” phase, but Willey errs by failing to give us more to either Travis or Zoe as characters. They were vague before and now, for the next hour, they will be defined by the depths of their addiction. However, I was never emotionally engaged with either of them so I found much of their rather redundant wallowing to be tedious and, shocking, failing to provide further needed characterization.
My engagement was also hampered by much of the clunky and inauthentic dialogue. When people speak, you don’t really feel like you’re learning much about them; it’s like empty air unless they’re directly expositing what is, by all other means, unclear. Travis says, via helpful future narration, that he never met someone “so alive” like Zoe and he was won over by her sense of humor. I shook my head and wondered where the evidence for this was, because the previous twenty minutes did not establish either of these aspects. The dialogue often falls into being redundant or exceedingly expository. We’re told Zoe has a great sense of humor, but where did we see it? We’re told this romance was electric, but where did we see it? The conclusions are being dictated to us rather than shared and earned. And then paradoxically we’re given scenes where characters will talk in circles but just hit the same note into oblivion. I found every scene with music producer Cash Dirty (Sunee Dhaliwal) to be excruciatingly long and unnecessary. I think he’s supposed to be “comic relief” but he’s just a more verbose version of most of the men, trading in the same levels of hedonism and casual misogyny. The big villain likes to keep taking but it’s the same improv note with too much time to fill. I’ve seen this kind of haphazard writing before in other indies that confuse “authenticity” with uninteresting and bland dialogue.
If you’re making an addiction movie you chiefly go one of two tonal routes: tragedy or immersion. Naturally, you can combine the two like Requiem for a Dream, but usually a filmmaker wants you to feel an emotional connection or a vicarious immersion with an overload of style. So, if you’re falling short from a characterization standpoint you can at least provide a satisfying array of style to bring to haunting visual and auditory life what the addiction process is like. I suppose one could argue that depictions of addiction without even the attempted integrity of characters and drama is simply cheap exploitation, and that can be true. With River Road, the characters don’t cut it to supply the tragedy. It’s just not there. I think it was another screenwriting error to provide not one but two framing devices, Travis and Zoe each narrating from the future when they’ve both gotten some form of treatment or help. I understand why this would be appealing to Willey because you can immediately plug into a scene of the past and cut to the character literally explaining, via voice over, what they were thinking at any moment. The problem with this is that the insight of these future narrators is pretty deficient. We don’t need future Zoe to tell us such obvious statements like “once you’re high there is no pain, there are no worries.” I think we understood that through the serene expressions on their faces, plus the general nature of drugs. They’re appealing for a reason. The other problem is that having both of our participants in this doomed love story as future storytellers means they won’t die. It eases some of the tension of its more fraught Act Three when they begin their dangerous decisions.
There’s also a misplaced twist at the one-hour mark that I find absolutely self-defeating, but to explain further will require some spoilers, so if you want to remain pure dear reader, skip to the next paragraph. From the fifteen-minute mark until the one-hour mark, we’re beset with redundant scenes of Zoe and Travis getting high, wandering around, being happy, and then being mopey during their withdrawal times, which shockingly don’t take up more time. It’s awkward to watch Travis mess up recording his guitar part for a song, and this is one of the few instances where we at least get a semblance of personal before/after contrast, but how many stagnant scenes do we need of people getting high, then begging people for money, then getting high again? This descent into debauchery doesn’t feel like we’ve regressed too far. Then at the one-hour mark the twist detonates that Zoe… actually knew about Travis when she saw his band perform in New York City. She stalked him online and followed him and planned her “chance meeting,” and my response was to merely shrug. So what? What does this twist do for the narrative? They were addicted to heroin before the first act was finished, so what does her being a stalker change with their current addiction crisis? After he demands she leave, Zoe comes back, and it’s as if this weird twist never happened for all its minimal impact. Travis does get to scream that Zoe hooked him on heroin on purpose, to try and control him, but, again, this is not evident with what we’ve seen onscreen. Also again, what does it matter? They’re stuck now. The manipulative woman trope, added onto the crazy groupie trope, is tacky, though I don’t know if we’re supposed to adopt Travis’ assessment when he learns the real truth. If this twist were going to be effective, we needed a lot more work done with Zoe’s characterization, with more time spent establishing a clear persona before the drugs became the dominant force. As it’s written, the twist plays like, “Hey, that vague girl who got addicted to drugs really quickly had maybe some other motives while she was vague.” You can’t earn that Gone Girl-style twist without putting in the proper time and effort for the rug pulling to genuinely upend the viewer.
From a technical standpoint, River Road is a slick-looking movie with moody, neon-drenched cinematography and an atmospheric and evocative film score, both done by Willey (he also edited and produced too). There are some fantastic visual compositions here and that’s where I think Willey has his true passion. The movie makes extensive use of montage where you can tell the shot composition and arrangement and editing are just much more ambitious. It almost feels like the drug montages and time lapse montages were what Willey enjoyed making the most. In contrast, the scenes of characters talking have less appealing composition, often relying upon a stifling shot-reverse shot rhythm where each person is left in a single shot. After a while, the discerning viewer can start to categorize the scenes that Willey prioritized more. Every filmmaker invariably does this to some degree; it’s just more apparent with River Road. The drug use sequences are entrancing, like the first taste of heroin leading to Zoe and Travis losing one another in the cosmos with snow falling on them being overlapped. I’m surprised we don’t have more visual sequences trying to convey the highs. Much of the scenes after this initial jolt are watching people close their eyes and nod in contentment. The editing in the montages is also smooth and seamlessly melting from shot to shot with ease. There are other scenes where the editing gets less prioritized as well. A scene where Zoe is laying perpendicular across Travis’ stomach kept cutting at sharp forty-five-degree angles that it ruined the flow of the scene. Likewise, a climactic foot chase is hampered from edits where the proximity is hard to judge. We needed more shots of Person A being seen with Person B. Without, or without clear markers to denote progression of the chase, it’s a jumble of frantic images without forming an important visual continuity.
River Road is a production where I would recommend just about every element with one big exception, the storytelling. I don’t blame the technicians nor the actors. It’s the screenplay that doesn’t know what to do with its 85 minutes, the wasted and redundant characterization, and the shrug-worthy climax (why do I care about an ultimate showdown between the big bad dealer and the guy who Travis works with at the gym?) that mitigate the other shining qualities. I think Willey is a filmmaker with some serious chops but maybe defer on the screenwriting next time.
Nate’s Grade: C