Directed by: Kevin Goetz, Michael Goetz
Written by: Kyle Killen
Featuring: Josh Duhamel, Dan Fogler, Miracle Laurie
Anyone who's been on a long car trip can attest to the fact that even if the journey starts out with two best friends, there are bound to be a few legs of the trip where you are ready to push the other party out of the moving car. Scenic Route, which played SXSW this week, is a film that explores this idea to the extremes.
Scenic Route follows two lifelong best friends, Mitch (Josh Duhamel) and Carter (Dan Fogler), on a drive through Death Valley. The two have drifted apart in the last few years since Mitch got married to a woman who Carter believes isn't right for him; as a result, Carter is no longer such a big part of Mitch's life. The road trip is intended to be a bonding experience, but when Mitch is withdrawn and disengaged from it, Carter takes matters into his own hands and fakes a breakdown hoping to spur quality time with his friend. Instead, his actions set them on a downward spiral of betrayal, pain and self-loathing.
The script, by Kyle Killen, has some excellent pieces of dialogue in it. When a film is carried entirely by two actors, the dialogue had better be fucking amazing, and Scenic Route has some poignant monologues with both actors enthusiastically chewing scenery. Carter laments being a failed, unemployed writer at 30, and Mitch is dismayed that he is stuck in a rut in his marriage and misses the freedom of being a single man. The two waver between screaming matches where they insult each other deep enough to draw blood and then actually work through their issues together. At one point, Mitch gives a great speech using a haircut as a metaphor for his life. He explains that he's always had to think about responsibilities and what others would think of him if he did something reckless, like get his hair cut into a mohawk, something he's wanted since high school. He still wants one but knows it wouldn't fly with his job in finance or with his conservative wife and young son. Carter argues that Mitch shouldn't worry so much what other people think and should just do what he wants. This leads to Carter giving Mitch a mohawk using a pair of shears on a Swiss Army knife in a very touching scene that is supposed to symbolize Mitch's growth and liberation.
The two have external problems in addition to mending their friendship fences; however, they are stranded on a desolate highway with no food or water, no cell phone reception, and they are sixty miles from the next town. Mitch is on crutches with one foot in a cast, and Carter is overweight — there's no way they'll make that trek easily without provisions. As a result, emotional tensions are heightened by the looming thread of starvation, dehydration and sunstroke. They battle the relentless temperatures by day and the freezing desert nights once the sun goes down. Each attempt they make at flagging down one of the uber-rare passing vehicles leads to dismaying results as well, leaving them little hope of rescue before they go insane or die from exposure.
I read one review that said Scenic Route does for road trips what Open Water did for diving, and I think that's a pretty apt comparison. Scenic Route is very bleak and depressing; when the two men aren't battling for their lives against the cruel unflinching landscape, they are tearing themselves or each other down psychologically and emotionally. Any step forward they make in mending old wounds leads to two or three steps back in the face of a new sleight, and as a result we aren't sure if they're going to pull through or not. For two actors to completely carry a movie, they have to be given good material and deliver it well. Fear not, because Duhamel shows off serious acting chops in this and Fogler has a great turn as his well-meaning but too-blunt best friend.
Bare bones and simple, with only a little wound-and-bruise makeup for ambiance, Scenic Route is an interesting take on an adult "coming of age" story mixed with a nature-horror tale. It will make you think even as it makes you reach gratefully for that glass of cold water at your elbow.