Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Last Road

Director: John Wheeler
Writer: John Wheeler
Producer: Laurence Williams
Cast: Aaron Long, Sarah Jane, Simon Sokolowski-Betts
Country: UK
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: online screener

The Last Road is a stunning-looking film which struggles manfully to overcome fundamental problems of character and narrative. The end result is not displeasing, but the experience of watching this ambitious movie is a somewhat hollow one. The film washed over me but left no mark. It provoked no thoughts, it provided no insight, it generated no feelings. Which is a shame.

Aaron Long stars as Toby Thwaite, an angry young man whose life consist of (a) abusing his bed-ridden mother (executive producer Dorothy Wheeler), (b) long walks across the Wiltshire countryside with his scruffy dog Prince, and (c) bare-knuckle fights in the back of a local pub. After one such fight goes a wee bit too far, Toby dies and finds himself in an afterlife which mirrors the real world except for being drained of much of its colour and only sparsely populated.

Returning to his mother’s house, Toby finds he can’t see her – but can see and interact with the previous (deceased) resident who throws him out on his ear. This was my favourite scene in the whole film. Irina Fisher’s cameo is an awesome, invective-filled, abusive monologue, complete with low-level violence, as years of pent-up frustration at having to share space in ‘her’ house is finally given vent.

After this however, Toby sets off to wander disconsolately around the empty countryside and frankly does little else for the rest of the (very long) movie. He meets an afterlife administrator, Edith, who drives a Mini and has a report on Toby’s life which determines what happens to him next. What happens is: he gets out of the Mini and does some more disconsolate wandering.

Over the course of his wandering he encounters various lost souls but they provide no revelation or insight – to him or to us – and on each occasion, after a while, Toby sets off again on his aimless quest. He meets Prince, whose presence in the afterlife is due to having been killed by a local small-time gangster as punishment for Toby failing to throw a fight. Prince joins the wander, his upbeat canine cheer counterpointing, to some extent, Toby’s disconsolatenessitude.

Eventually Toby achieves a degree of stability in a ‘camp’ made from junk with a man named Richardson (Simon Sokolowski-Betts) and two women whose names aren’t made clear (Laura Marklew and Becki Silcox). When Richardson disposes of one of the women and then steals Edith’s Mini, Toby and the other woman set off in pursuit, assisted by a large gang of bikers (who presumably all died in a giant motorway pile-up). Toby is briefly distracted by a group of lost souls chanting in front of a Christian cross but the unnamed woman pulls him away.

The above sort-of-synopsis will, I think, demonstrate that this is a picaresque tale of an incidental journey. The problem is that none of the incidents on that journey are very interesting. The various characters are so wafer-thin that most of them don’t even have names. Much of the film is dialogue-free, and what little dialogue does exist is uninspiring.

To its credit, the film avoids pretentious cod-Biblical pronouncements. Explanation about what’s going on is largely delivered by Edith, a cracking performance from Sarah-Jane Williams (credited as just ‘Sarah Jane’, also responsible for make-up, hair and costumes) who delivers her lines with a no-nonsense approach and a slightly world-weary tone. This really gives Edith a depth of character that many of the other lost souls lack. There are also some flashbacks to Toby’s childhood (Mackenzie Arnold Williams plays him as a child), mostly involving a small music box. Producer Laurence Williams plays his angry father in one scene.

The big problem with The Last Road – apart from the fact that it doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything – is that Toby Thwaite himself is not in any way a sympathetic character. He’s a deeply unpleasant, violent idiot who bullies his own mother and apparently earns his living by kicking the shit out of people who are in turn kicking the shit out of him, for the amusement of other deeply unpleasant, violent idiots and the profit of small-time gangsters. The fact that he loves his dog, and sometimes prays in an empty church, isn’t enough for us to feel any empathy with him in the first half hour while he’s still alive. Nor is it sufficient for us to care what happens to him after he dies. He’s already dead, so even if we liked him there’s no way we can root for him to survive to the end of the film, which is really the baseline of empathy required of any movie character.

The end of the film, incidentally, is a long way off. The Last Road runs a massive 113 minutes which is at least half an hour too long. Big Hollywood blockbusters run two hours because they’re full of things exploding and/or complex character dynamics. An indie film about a man wandering through the afterlife with his dog shouldn’t run more than 80 minutes or so. There’s no particular scene or sequence that needs removing – the narrative is so shallow that no one bit stands out – it’s the film as a whole that needs multiple small trims to get that run-time down. The nub of the problem is this: not much happens, there are long gaps of nothing between the things that do happen, and when they eventually happen they’re very slow and drawn-out. This is a laconic, almost lethargic film. Which is quite an achievement in itself: very few films that feature two violent bare-knuckle bouts, a mass biker rally, a fatal stabbing and a woman dancing in nothing but body paint could be described as ‘lethargic’.

On the plus side – and there is a plus side – this is a beautifully photographed movie. Visually, it’s terrific. Wheeler’s camera-work is very impressive. As director he has a penchant for constant cutting, with most shots lasting no more than a second or two: long shot, close-up, medium shot, two-shot, cut, cut, cut. It’s a distinctive style, despite which – or possibly because of which – the rare shots held at length really stand out. These are mostly long shots of Toby which really show off the local countryside. The draining of colour from the afterlife is subtle but effective, and the interior scenes in the first act are also well-lit and well-framed. On top of which, the sound is excellent, both the recording and the mix. Mark Standing provided the effective music.

John Wheeler is represented numerous times throughout the credits, though he’s not quite a one-man band. Lead actor Long is credited as ‘stunt co’ordinator (sic)/fight choreographer’ and there are numerous uses of the term ‘feral’/’ferel’ in the credits which I have no idea what they are referring to (or mean).

On a technical and artistic level, The Last Road succeeds, but a feature film is a three-legged stool and the narrative leg is broken on this one. It could have been a lot worse. It could have been pretentious or preachy or clich├ęd but it’s none of these. It’s not even dull or tedious, despite the vast running time. Frankly, if you’ve got a couple of hours to spare and a fondness for metaphysical afterlife fantasies, then I would recommend you check this out.

But does it work? Does it achieve its aims? Does it make the viewer think – about death, about morality, about redemption, about anything? Hand on heart, no it doesn’t. Sorry. I think the most clear indication of the film's lack of success in this respect concerns its attitude towards religion - which is that this attitude is unclear. For all his thuggery and general unpleasantness, Toby Thwaite evidently retains a stump of Christian upbringing and has no qualms about talking to God. Once he's dead, he is completely accepting of - and unsurprised by - the situation. There is talk in the film of Heaven and Hell. But... is this a Christian film? Has John Wheeler and/or Laurence Williams made it from a Christian perspective? Or does the movie simply use Christian tropes as allegory to make some greater point about existance and the human condition? Or is it even damning organised religion, showing that Toby's Christian beliefs haven't been enough to save him from eternity in a bleached-out Wiltshire? Who knows?

Don't get me wrong. I'm genuinely pleased that The Last Road avoids both the simplistic Biblical dogma of stuff like The Omega Code and also the infantile anti-religious dialectic found in pictures like Sacred Flesh or Hellraiser III. There is a middle ground, but that doesn't seem to be here either. I suppose we could put our own individual interpretations on the movie, but that's always a creative cop-out and I don't think that was the film-makers' intention. The trouble is: I don't know what their intention actually was.

Shot over 17 months in and around the town of Westbury, The Last Road was picked up by New York sales agency Striped Entertainment (who also have David Hutchison's Graders on their books) and was released through Vimeo VOD in June 2014 (with a 2012 copyright date). Although the nominal festival premiere was at the Eastern North Carolina Film Festival in September 2014, there was actually a version screened three years before that at the Portobello Film Festival in London in September 2011. Interestingly, the 2011 cut ran only 46 minutes which, in all honesty, is probably a more realistic run-time for this kind of movie.

MJS rating: B-

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