A rock musician and a free-spirited woman start an intense relationship that soon spirals into a world of drug addiction and crime in Rob Wiley’s crime thriller River Road.
From the synopsis of River Road and before we even watched the movie, we knew immediately what type of film this was going to be; a continuation of the long tradition of outlaw road movies, a genre that includes some of Cinema’s greatest films like Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, Thelma And Louise, and True Romance. All of those mentioned are films about ordinary people who become criminals, not because they are necessarily bad or stupid, but mainly because unforeseen circumstances have caused their lives to completely run away with them. Director Rob Wiley tips his hat to all those films but the one it is most similar to was actually Drugstore Cowboy – Gus Van Sant’s critically acclaimed 80’s classic.
River Road stars Cody Kearsley as Travis, a guitarist for a rock band who, despite his rock star excesses with drink and drugs, has an otherwise healthy lifestyle. He exercises regularly, runs, meditates, and does yoga. During a break at a lake house, he bumps into the smart and sarcastic Zoe (played by Lexi Redman) who manages to put him in his place and keep him on his toes. With her quick wit and sense of humor, he is immediately smitten and they embark on a passionate affair. During one night of debauchery, they mistakenly snort heroin and it is this moment that changes their lives as they get hooked on the drug. The new couple begins to fall deeper into drug abuse, drifting from one high to the next and slowly destroying each facet of their everyday lives.
The film opens lively enough with quick cuts and edits showing Travis committing crimes. During this extremely fast-paced beginning, it actually feels like a trailer or one of those ‘Previously on…’ teases you get at the beginning of TV shows. Partially narrated by Travis, the movie takes place in flashback as he tells his story to his drug sponsor. Kearsley’s flat voice doesn’t try to dramatize the material, he is simply telling his story to someone who will listen. He knows it is sad and to an extent his own fault, but he also knows it’s true. He doesn’t try to glamorize his situation, he is simply trying to understand how he got himself into it in the first place.
Amongst all of the darkness, Wiley’s script provides us with some humor, with the interaction between characters feeling very real and the dialogue between bandmates, as well as early exchanges between Zoe and Travis, providing laughs of recognition and some much-needed smiles.
Throughout the 84-minute runtime, Wiley uses a lot of darkly lit shots and frequently lights them using variants of neon colors. This leads to a lot of pinks, purple, and blue, but it’s remarkably effective in bringing out the seediness of the situation, while during the raids the fluorescent lights in the stores give us a gritty lo-fi feel to proceedings. As a cinematographer, there is a lot of handheld motion and shots that keep things moving. Each image is always interesting and exciting to look at. The music has a very retro 80’s feel and the constant pulsing synth score by Wiley and Michael Chambers all adds up to a hugely enjoyable cinematic experience.
Despite a soap opera-style revelation and a formulaic finale, River Road manages to keep things grounded and serious. It’s a tribute to the talent, technical ability, and skill of director Rob Wiley as well as his cast that River Road is able to overcome its weaknesses and leave an audience exhilarated and joyous after watching a film with a particularly dark subject matter.