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Non-Review Review: The Roads Not Taken

There are two different, decent competing movies tucked away inside The Roads Not Taken. Sadly, the whole is much less than the sum of its two largest parts.

The first  of these movies is a fairly conventional study of a daughter coping with her father’s neurological degeneration. It is a fairly standard template, tapping into recognisable anxieties about growing old, and the realisation that many children will have to act as caregivers for their parents in old age. This is a solid basis for a movie on its own terms. Indeed, it seems like a film that could easily net an awards nominations for actors Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning.

Holding it together.

The second film is a more abstract and ambitious work, in which an older man reflects on the life that he has lived and – trapped inside his own head with a slipping sense of reality – allows himself to play out fantasies of how his life might have been different. This a more philosophical work, a more reflective and introspective film. It seems like something from a stranger and more unusual movie, something like The Fountain or even Cloud Atlas.

The problem is that these two angles on the story do not fit together. In cutting across them, director Sally Potter undercuts and undermines both narratives. Neither thread has enough room to breath and build momentum, and both are driven by fundamentally different stakes. One movie is about the experiences of an aging writer named Leo, while the other is about his daughter Molly, and shifting back and forth causes the movie to lose its emotional footing. The result is an interesting and well-intentioned curiosity, but an underwhelming film.

Baby, I’m a-maize-d by you.

The bulk of the narrative takes place over the course of a single day for Leo. Leo is suffering from an underlying condition that has led to his mental degeneration. He still lives alone, albeit with care from nurses. He can hear the people around him, and can respond to simple instructions, but is constantly disoriented and off-balance. The film begins with Leo’s daughter Molly taking a morning off work to walk Leo through a trip to the dentist and the ophthalmologist, but these simple tasks become increasingly fraught.

There’s an endearing tenderness to these sequences. Potter’s casting does a lot of the heavy-lifting. Javier Bardem gives a solid performance as Leo, one notable for its restraint in avoiding the sorts of clichés that define roles like this. Similarly, Elle Fanning holds her own, balancing the exhaustion, the determination and the frustration with the absurdity around her. There’s an understated sweetness to the dynamic between Leo and Molly that never feels heavy-handed. Instead, it feels observed and earned.

Let it lie.

There is a mundanity to these sequences that serves the film well, recalling the slow-burn intimacy and mounting tension of a film like Ordinary Love. Indeed, The Roads Not Taken is most affecting in its low-key scenes, in capturing the extent to which Molly has also adjusted to the challenges around her. The challenges that Molly faces are undoubtedly as draining to her as they are to Leo and the other characters, but Molly has learned to roll with them as best she can. As such, the small cracks – a snappy aside here, a sigh there – speak louder than a tearful monologue.

However, this ordinariness is very much at odds with the film’s attempt to (literally) delver inside Leo’s head. The early scenes are cut against sequences of Leo waking up with a strange woman named Dolores in Mexico or just lounging around in Greece while working on a book. It is not initially clear exactly how these sequences relate to one another, beyond the obvious suggesting that these sequences are playing out inside Leo’s brain. Are they memories? Are they dreams? Are they stories?

No driving momentum.

The film treats these elements as mysteries to be solved. When Leo mentions the name out loud, Molly is confused. “Who’s Dolores?” Later, answers become clear via awkward exposition dumps, even if the nature of these visions is basically revealed by the film’s title. This basic structuring device suggests a more plot-driven and linear film than The Roads Not Taken ever aims to be. In doing so, it undercuts the sense of exhaustion around Leo’s condition, the feeling that things have been like this for a long time and there is no escape from it.

The Roads Not Taken suffers from jamming these two very different films together. The results are dissonant, chaotic and unfocused. The story in the real world is emotionally anchored in the daughter rather than the father, while the story in the fantasy suffers because there’s no real sense of the real life that the father lived to play off these underdeveloped fantasies that are not so radically different from one another as to justify the contrast.

Life outside his window.

There’s no resonance between the plot threads, and a lot of the movie feels curiously disconnected from itself – famously an entire plot thread focusing on Chris Rock was cut from the movie, giving a sense of how integral any part of The Roads Not Taken must be to any other part of The Roads Not Taken. It seems just as likely that the sequence in Greece or the sequence in Mexico could have been removed. The result would likely have been the same, two dissonant movies at odds with one another.

To be fair, there are some interesting ideas here. It might be interesting to see a movie that can explore these themes and ideas in a more thorough and engaging manner, perhaps a film more explicitly interested in what tethers Leo across these three narratives or in trying to project the sense of a character trapped in a slipping, fragile of reality. In this respect, The Roads Not Taken suffers in comparison to something like i’m thinking of ending things.

Unfortunately, The Roads Not Taken never finds the clarity necessary for an idea like this to work. As a result, it is more frustrating than compelling, more disjointed than intriguing.

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