DIRECTED BY: John Wheeler
FEATURING: Aaron Long, Simon Sokowlwoski, Laura Marklew
PLOT: A down-on-his-luck fighter with anger issues and a penchant for bringing his dog everywhere with him is killed; instead of going to Heaven or Hell, he is left in a Purgatory that looks like Birmingham and must find his place in a brutal, unforgiving afterlife.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Every film that has been both excellent and unique enough to make it onto the List of the 366 weirdest films of all time has been guided by a strong sense of purpose, or at least a sense of identity. The Last Road is hopelessly lost on the very road it sets out on; it is the film equivalent of listening to someone decide out loud what they want to eat for dinner.
COMMENTS: It wasn’t that long ago that when people said the words “independent picture” in conversation, the image brought to mind was of a navel-gazing, impenetrable vanity project from someone who hadn’t had the career or life experience to demand a moviegoer’s attention span. With the explosion of pop culture indie-centrism in the early ’00s and the digital camera revolution, indies have come a long way since then, but a stigma still remains in the public consciousness from decades of snoozers like Smilla’s Sense of Snow and twee-fests like Garden State. The Last Road is an ambitious independent feature from first-time writer/director/key grip John Wheeler about life after life, and while it is obvious that the spirit here is willing, the body, unfortunately, is weak.
Set in the arsehole of Britannia, which will henceforth be referred to as Trainspotting-ham, it chronicles the misadventures of Toby, the angriest bloke who ever bloked. This guy is the worst; imagine an unemployed Morrissey with short hair who binge-watches MMA bouts and thinks he looks good in tank tops. He is a fighter with a nasty temper, a temper that is affecting his relationships at home and in the ring. His ill mother is subject to one of his tantrums and has a pint of milk dumped on her head as a result, and when his anger gets the better of him while talking to his shady underworld boss, it leads to his dog being viciously killed in front of his eyes (!!!). This sets him up for an (ultimately final) outburst in the ring, whereby his overwhelming explosion of violence leads his opponent, in desperation, to slash Toby’s throat with a nearby broken beer bottle and end his life. This is only the beginning of the story, however, as we are taken to the afterlife, where Toby is confronted with his poor life decisions by a shrewish blonde angel driving a Mini. She tells him that he has to find his own way to salvation, otherwise he can never be redeemed in the eyes of God. So Toby wanders the wastes of Limbo, meeting new friends, inciting bitter rivalries, and reuniting with familiar faces from his previous life.
…at least, I think so. The Last Road is really very noncommittal about what it wants to say or do. Or perhaps it is covering up a lack of narrative with visuals, strange set pieces, and maudlin introspection. Whatever the case may be, there is not enough happening (truly happening, not just tiresome flashbacks and unappealing static shots) to justify a 90 minute feature. Which is quite a setback, considering this is a 123 minute-long movie! That means lots of time taken up by the INNER TURMOIL of our hero, without context in the story or reasonable explanation.
And this is the most contentious aspect of the whole affair, because Toby’s struggle, the entire impetus of the film and the reason both he and the moviegoer set out on the sojourn that is The Last Road, is an informed attribute. We are not given an ounce of exposition as to why things are so difficult for him, why he is suffering on the inside, or what his motivations are for doing any of the seemingly arbitrary things he ends up doing. He is just an angry guy with a mission to redeem himself. But why? Who is this person? Why does he want to be redeemed in God’s eyes? Why does he need to be redeemed at all? Instead of answers, or something resembling an answer, we are treated to indulgent, laconic moments of on-screen anguish, as if Toby, in a wrestling ring on the seedy side of Trainspotting-ham, had died for our sins.
The Last Road is an independent feature that, while admittedly unique, lives up to that grand old indie tradition of being very difficult to watch. It is a shame, because it exhibits a wealth of potential from a first-time director: the shots are carefully composed, the sound design is remarkable, and the sets are eerie and full of nihilistic expression. But the delivery of these qualities in the form of unlikable characters trudging through a banal narrative ends up feeling confused at best and emotionally manipulative at worst (i.e. anything involving the damn dog). A similar-yet-better experience would be turning on What Dreams May Come with the brightness level on the television adjusted down 50%.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Trying to figure out what the film was getting at with certain characters and situations allows you to run with the narrative in a number of directions beyond the obvious, and that offers an extra level of engagement. It all comes down to whether you find the ideas presented interesting enough to ponder, of course, but I think the film delivers enough variety to avoid becoming too stale.”–Mark Bell, Film Threat (DVD)