From Easy Rider to Nebraska: The road movie’s allure

Films about long journeys on the open road have always made for vital cinema. Jordan Hoffman explores their enduring appeal.

The road movie is one of the most beloved and enduring genres in Hollywood cinema. A road movie can be funny, thrilling, or romantic, but its essence is always the same: an outward journey that triggers and signifies its characters’ inward transformation. Through cross-country travel by car or motorcycle – often set against gorgeously photographed images of the American West – a series of adventures represents a journey inwards. That expedition is sometimes solo, but the best road movies usually feature a couple falling in love or family members shaking off accumulated dust to reconnect with one another. The act of travelling, a literary theme that stretches all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey, is a search for connection and meaning that bring people closer as they travel farther.

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a road movie in the classical sense. The melancholy black-and-white film stars Will Forte as a directionless man exasperated by his increasingly senile and difficult father, played by Bruce Dern, who is convinced that a misleading junk mail flyer is a true promise of riches. Forte volunteers to drive his estranged father hundreds of miles to collect his ‘prize’: it will be an opportunity to bond, to have some adventures and come away with a new understanding.

Whether it is a father-son connection or some other relationship dynamic, the road movie is above all a chance for character studies. But it is also enormously flexible: it can take in other genres, comment on political issues or set out a philosophical worldview. This is one reason the road movie has remained consistently popular since the advent of sound cinema – with detours and potholes here and there.

Left side of the road

The first American road pictures were produced in the 1930s, when the social changes brought about by the automobile were still relatively new. The first US motel – literally ‘motor hotel’ – opened in 1925, and only nine years later Frank Capra released his best picture Oscar winner It Happened One Night. Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable played a mismatched pair (an heiress and an out-of-work reporter) who end up falling in love after hijinks and misfortune bring them together on a wacky trip from Miami to New York City.

Travellers’ misfortunes make great stories, and the mass movement of people around the US that the Great Depression triggered was fertile ground for socially conscious filmmakers. From John Ford's dustbowl Okies in The Grapes of Wrath to the Hollywood director character hoping to expose the suffering of the common man in Preston Sturges' Sullivan’s Travels, railyards, jalopies and coach buses were the perfect forums in which to present a cross-section of humanity.

That the first road movies were made in Hollywood is not surprising. In the decades to come European luminaries like Henri-George Clouzot, Jean-Luc Godard and Wim Wenders would make road pictures, but this is primarily an American movie genre. Maybe it is because of the variety of the country’s landscapes, or the fact that traveling overland – dating back to the “Go West” ethos of the 19th Century – was essential for the settlement of the US.

When the ‘New Hollywood’ revolution came, it also arrived on the road. Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn's 1967 tale of youth rebellion (and unorthodox sexual conventions), shocked moviegoers with violence and crime, but it was still palatable enough because of its familiar road movie formula. The same can be said for one the most iconic of the counter culture, Dennis Hopper's sex, drugs and rock-and-roll epic Easy Rider. All the anti-establishment fury in that film would not have amounted to much if Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild had played against images of Peter Fonda walking around a city. He needed to be on a motorcycle, heading down to New Orleans and his fiery destiny. It may seem strange to put square Frank Capra and bearded hippie bikers on the same shelf, but the backdrop of highways, small towns and greasy spoons remained the same.

American filmmakers of the late 1960s and ‘70s brought their own political concerns to the genre. There were the existential drifter-racers of Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, Peter Bogdanovich's traveling hucksters in Paper Moon, Paul Mazursky's geriatric explorer and his cat in Harry and Tonto, Terrence Malick's star-crossed killers of Badlands, and the foulmouthed, distempered military-men wanderers of The Last Detail. Each of these classics brought rich, memorable characters to the screen whose stories and personal relationships were forged by a trek on the American road. These films often feature little in terms of plot – like the European art cinema of the time, they look searingly inward without much concern for external action – but their changing landscapes keep audiences engaged. The panoramic vistas of these films project the internal struggle of the characters. It cannot be a coincidence that these movies so often feature characters with barren emotional lives against literally arid backdrops.

Not running on fumes

Eighty years after it first hit the highway, the road picture is in no danger of going away. While hardly a commercial or critical success, last year's The Guilt Trip starring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand is a perfect example of how you can know what a movie is just by looking at the title. They play an estranged mother and son on a cross-country journey, which means that, of course, they are in for some comedy exploits.  But journeying a distance together on the road ends up being just the thing they need to bridge the emotional distance between them. Like so many road movies before it, The Guilt Trip seems to say that petrol and axle grease are better than psychotherapy.

Which brings us back to Nebraska. Alexander Payne clearly knew what he was doing when he set this movie on the road. And casting Bruce Dern, a veteran of many important ‘New Hollywood’ classics, is equally significant. Nebraska is not a counter-cultural rebel yell like Easy Rider or Two-Lane Blacktop. It is simply a relationship study, minus the politics and polemics. Is it safe where the road movies of yore were charged and daring? Not when you consider the existential void that threatens to engulf the characters. Impending senility, the death of dreams, the uncertainty of where to proceed in life if you can go anywhere at all. Heavy stuff.  But the possibility of connection and transformation, so integral to the road movie form, is still there, maybe just around the next bend in the highway. Like all great road movies, Nebraska tells us that the first step toward a new beginning is to put your foot on the accelerator.

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