With the release of Mississippi Grind in Irish cinemas on October 23rd, the great staple of classic American filmmaking – the road trip – sees a worthy addition to the very best of films made in this genre. Directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden and starring the magnetic Ben Mendelsohn alongside Ryan Reynolds (who gives his finest performance in years), Mississippi Grind tells of a down on his luck gambler (Mendelsohn) who randomly meets what he considers to be his lucky charm (Reynolds) and they take off on a road trip around the southern states of the US en route to a high stakes poker game. The film, as all good road movies should, is centred around a mesmerising dynamic between the two lead characters.
This made us think of other memorable films in the genre, and gives us an opportunity to look back at some of the finest American road trip movies ever made.
Steven Spielberg’s first film, which was made for television, is a real sign of things to come from this master filmmaker – a stripped back and wildly efficient thriller about a travelling salesman, played by Denis Weaver, who is tormented at every turn by a mysterious, menacing truck. Receiving no assistance from locals in the towns he passes through, he’s forced to cast off his calm demeanour and tackle the threat head on. The dynamic at play here between the salesman and truck (we never get to see the driver) is ratched up systematically by Spielberg, showcasing his remarkable cinematic flair.
Another debut feature, this time from the masterful Terrence Malick, displaying here a hypnotic attention to detail that he would continue to use throughout his career, which has become more prolific in recent years following a long hiatus. A young couple (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) goes on a crime spree in the US Midwest – a theme that is the focus of many classics of the road trip genre. Kit (Sheen), fancying himself as something of a rebel without a cause, shoots the father of Holly (Spacek) after he tries to break the couple up. This leads them to take off on a murderous trip seeing them tailed by ruthless bounty hunters. The sublime visuals here lend themselves perfectly to road trip territory and positioned Malick as a real visionary American filmmaker.
Something Wild (1986)
Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild is a ballsy, joyous and edgy piece of work, kicking off in New York where professional Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) bumps into the quirky Lulu (Melanie Griffith) who promptly encourages him to skip work for the afternoon to take a road trip to Virginia. The trip ends up being a bizarre series of events, including interrupting a high school reunion and a memorable bondage scene, with Driggs becoming increasingly intrigued and captivated by being able to throw off the more straight-laced shackles of his personality. The film oozes quirky charm and the lead performances (particularly Griffith) are bursting with likeability. Demme navigates the twists and turns of the tone of the film with ease and confidence, ending up with a minor masterpiece from the 80s.
Thelma and Louise (1991)
A landmark in road movie history, this is the film that marked several memorable moments in cinema – a hitherto unexplored dynamic between two lead female characters, a return to form for Ridley Scott, and the cinema debut of Brad Pitt. This massively popular feminist twist on the classic pair of outlaws on a crime spree was one of the biggest hits of the year. Susan Sarandon (Louise) and Geena Davis (Thelma) head out for a trip in a Ford Thunderbird when things take a deadly turn after Louise shoots an attempted rapist dead. The two friends decide to make for Mexico, chased by the police at every turn. Directed with flair, as you would expect, from Ridley Scott, the film has a backdrop of classic Americana, showcasing spectacular scenery while telling a compelling, funny and hearbreaking story of friendship and crisis. The final sequence is one of the most memorable in film history.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Gus Van Sant’s loose (very loose) reworking of ‘Henry IV’ is a remarkable piece of work with each of the contributors, including the two lead cast, at the very top of their game. Van Sant is in vaguely surreal territory here, bravely telling a deeply affecting story about love and power through the eyes of two street hustlers from Portland, Scott (Keanu Reeves) and Mike (a heartbreakingly good River Phoenix). They both take to the road to look for Mike’s mother who has abandoned him, travelling to his home in Idaho all the while tackling the crippling narcolepsy which Mike suffers from – on stressful occasions, he falls into a deep sleep. Eventually arriving in Idaho to find out that his mother is in Italy, the pair find the means to travel to Rome, where Scott falls in love with a girl. Mike has fallen in love with Scott however, leading to devastating consequences. An extraordinarily audacious example of superb Independent American cinema.
Director Alexander Payne has often touched on the road trip theme in his films (The Descendants, About Schmidt) and in Sideways he embraces the theme with gusto. A mature road trip comedy, arguably boasting career-best performances from a number of the cast, the film is set against the backdrop of California wine country where Miles (an excellent Paul Giamatti) brings Jack (an equally impressive Thomas Haden Church) on a wine tasting trip. The trip is a salute to Jack’s final days as a bachelor, and it keenly observes the impact of mid-life crises, loneliness and middle-aged disappointment, all while perfectly balancing an overarching level of humour to contrast the pathos. Again, the dynamic between the two main characters on the road trip is the key to success here, with Payne skillfully managing how the mismatched pair interact.