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A review of "Road Games" (1981)

The short bit for people who don't like to read reviews:

If you're looking for a low-budget, small-scale truck-driver-themed thriller centered principally on a single, nearly-powerless protagonist, go watch Duel.  And after you're done with that, go watch Breakdown.  But if you've already seen those and you're looking for a good third, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Road Games. It is in no way unique, but it is a well-made movie with at least three truly great scenes and one fantastic performance by Stacy Keach.  It's a quick, fun watch that's perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

My Rating:  4 / 5

The longer bits for people who like film discussion:

The Bit Wherein I Introduce Things

Once again I'm dipping my toe into Australian film for the Holy Grail.  (Is there any Australian film that was a hit in America besides Crocodile Dundee?)

This particular movie was directed by Richard Franklin, who is better known in America as the director of sequels that nobody asked for, including Psycho II and F/X2.  In fairness: I thought F/X2 was fun enough and I have yet to see any of the Psycho movies.

Anyhow, Road Games is notable for at least two pieces of trivia:

1) At the time of production, it had the highest budget of any movie in Australia up to that time; and
2) It's Quentin Tarantino's favorite Australian movie.

Road Games was a massive hit in its native land, making back more than fifty times its budget, but unfortunately it failed to win over American audiences.  So once again, I have to apologize to any international readers who may be insulted by me calling this one "obscure."

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Movie's Plot

Pat Quid (Stacy Keach) is an eccentric jack-of-all-trades type who is presently driving a truck.  (As he is quick to point out, "Just because I drive a truck does not mean I am a truck driver.")  Although his back-story is never explored in excruciating detail other than a brief monologue late in the film, you get the sense he's had a series of misadventures that have, one way or another, led him to the Australian outback.

Quid is a man of odd habits, as if specifically constructed from quirk.  He quotes poetry.  He owns a dingo, his only companion, with whom he carries frequent, long conversations about life on the road.  He reads The New Yorker in between looking at skin mags.  He observes people from a distance and guesses at their fears, desires, and ambitions.  He plays games (road games, if you will) wherein he thinks of himself as a detective or a psychologist trying to unravel other drivers' secrets.

When the movie opens, Quid has just ended a particularly long haul and is due for a long rest period.  However, a dispatcher calls in and asks if he's up to transport a bunch of pork.  Quid is reluctant, but accepts the job - but not before he starts to spy on a creepy man in a green van.  (Let's just call him "Psycho" since he never gets a proper name.)

Psycho is checking into a motel room - the last one available, thus forcing Quid to spend another night in his truck - with a hitchhiker.  Quid jokes around a bit with his dingo about whether or not the hitchhiker is a prostitute and then goes to bed.  When he wakes up the next day, he continues to spy on Psycho.  Now he's suspiciously sulking around the motel... and Quid's dingo is curiously interested in a fresh pile of garbage bags outside of the building.

After Quid picks up his pork shipment, he embarks on an epic quest to Perth where he repeatedly encounters Psycho and/or his green van.  Suspicious details start to crop up.  Psycho is spotted burying a garbage bag out in the desert... Psycho speeds away in terror whenever Quid gets close to his van... news reports tell of missing women in the area where Psycho has been driving....

For the remainder of the film, Quid puzzles over whether or not Psycho is a murderer and, if he is, how he might be caught.  Along the way, he picks up two hitchhikers (one after the other, not at the same time) who are respectively repulsed and intrigued by his obsession over Psycho.  One of those hitchhikers, lovingly referred to as "Hitch" (Jamie Lee Curtis), disappears at a truck stop and Quid becomes convinced that Psycho has kidnapped her.

Nearly all of the movie takes place in the cabin of Quid's truck where he experiences various emotions and struggles with what he should do next.  He is plagued by indecision and frustration.  Are his suspicions accurate?  Is Psycho actually a murderer, or just a weirdo?  Was Hitch actually kidnapped, or did she just run off with somebody?

Now, while it may not sound exciting to watch the same guy talk to himself for ninety minutes (You're telling me you don't want to watch a movie about a guy driving around for a coupla days in the desert?), the movie is a terrific exploration of paranoia and tension.

For one thing, Quid never betrays the reality of his setting - he's always "just a guy."  There are no moments when he suddenly becomes an action hero and punches out a bunch of people.  (Not really, anyway.  Arguably there is one scene... but in context it works.)  He spends most of the movie frightened and confused while Psycho is always just out of reach.

I love it when a movie can keep its protagonist vulnerable even when they're brandishing a weapon.  Heroes are only ever interesting when they're weak.

Because he is just a normal dude, Quid is typically reactive rather than proactive.  The few times that he does try to take action he ends up destroying something or causing harm around him.  There's an especially fantastic moment where he needs to chase down Psycho, so his gut reaction is to steal a nearby motorcycle - but he has no idea how to ride one, so he immediately crashes.

On top of that, the movie does a good job of keeping Quid in the dark.  He rarely knows what's going on around him and has to make decisions based on partial or faulty information.  This leads to what is probably the best scene in the movie: Quid notices that the temperature of the truck is going up, so he pulls over to inspect the pork carcasses in the back.  He finds out that the door to the back has been unlocked and is hanging open.  When he goes inside, he notices that there's two extra slabs of meat... slightly irregular and both warmer than the rest.

It's a creepy scene where Quid - and we - can't really tell what's going on.  Are they actually pieces of a human body, or did the truck loaders just miscount his shipment?  There are no conclusions reached.  Quid can only get back on the road and freak out about it.

The Bit Wherein I Discuss the Crappy Love Interest

There is one significant part of this movie that I should probably talk about before moving on.  That's the presence of Hitch.

Although Jamie Lee Curtis does a fine job, her character is kind of the worst part of the movie.  It's not that Hitch is an irritating character - not at all.  In fact, she's likable and charming.  Curtis's performance really secures her a fun sidekick within the first few minutes of her screen time.

The problem is that Hitch has such a small role.  She appears around minute twenty and disappears by minute forty-five.  During that brief time, she is built up as an ambiguous daughter-surrogate / love interest; the connection between Quid and Hitch is not fleshed out deeply enough for you to believe that they have a strong relationship or even what kind of relationship it would be.

In some ways this works to the movie's advantage, as it adds to the idea of Quid being helpless and confused.  But more than that she feels like an afterthought.  Overall, it seems like the movie is incomplete - as if there was supposed to be another half hour of Hitch footage that all got cut.

The Bit Wherein I Discuss "He's Crazy!" Endings

Something you learn to appreciate after you've watched a couple thousand movies is when a movie can just play it straight and take things to a proper conclusion.  There's nothing more irritating than seeing a good movie drive off a cliff when the director decides to throw in a cheap twist.

Or, in other words, I friggin' hate "He's Crazy!" endings.

I'm sure there's a proper term for this somewhere out there.  Probably TV Tropes has a cutesy / convoluted name for it like "Personality Confusion Matrix."  But in any case, you've probably seen this ending a hundred times already.  You know how it goes:

Protagonist struggles with conflict.  Tension mounts.  Then The Explainer appears - a psychologist, a cop, a family member, maybe even God - and tells the protagonist that, whoops, you've been crazy all along!  There never actually was an ax murderer / missing brother / evil stepmother / haunted mansion / desolate truck stop / monster...  you were either hallucinating / trapped in an asylum / really depressed / on drugs / have multiple personalities / killing people and projecting your guilt on a mental construct / jerking off in the shower the whole time!

Whoa!  Mind blown!

(In the interest of not being a dick and "spoiling" any movies, I won't give any examples, but there's at least a hundred thousand of these movies out there.  I'm sure you'll fill in the blanks on your own time.)

The "He's Crazy!" ending is so far beyond a cliche that it's more like a shitty accident than an actual plot element.  It's the kind of thing I could see somebody slipping into a review.  "The acting and special effects were pretty good, but the movie had terrible lighting and also there was a 'He's Crazy!' ending."

I don't understand why anybody would even bother with a "He's Crazy!" ending anymore.  It just about always ruins a story because it invalidates much, if not all, of the preceding events.  You might as well just have the director come on screen and say, "Psyche!  This movie was just bullshit and you fell for it!  HA!"  The only reason anybody would even try it is to surprise people, but guess what?  It's not fucking surprising anymore.  It's the first thing people will guess when they watch your thriller.

The reason I'm getting all ranty about this is because Road Games could easily have had a "He's Crazy!" ending.  All the clues are there:  The movie centers on an oddball protagonist who hasn't slept in days.  He has strange habits and comes across as a weirdo to everybody he meets.  Few people actually interact with him, and the few who do see him exhibit aggressive and destructive behavior.  It's prime "He's Crazy!" territory.

If Road Games had gone that route, it would have knocked my rating down substantially.  But instead, the director has enough skill to move ahead with conviction and bring the story to a natural climax.  The movie is far more effective for it - you end up with a terse situation that gives you some of those old-fashioned things like suspense and tension.

That's not to say that the ending isn't predictable.  Like all movies, there's really only one of three ways a movie can really end: the protagonist wins, the protagonist loses, or everybody loses.  (Guess which one it usually is.)

But predictability isn't the point - it never is.  A good thriller is never about surprising the audience; it's about making them feel unnerved even when they already know what's going to happen next.  Road Games succeeds at that.

The Bit Wherein I Conclude Things

I didn't realize until I stared writing this review how big of a hit this movie was in Australia.  It's incredible to learn something like that - it means that around the same time we were all busy going out to see Clint Eastwood make out with an orangutan, the Aussies got to see a movie that was, y'know... good.

If you go before it gets pulled for copyright violations, you can make up for lost time by checking it out on Youtube.