United States. Directed by Jason Banker, 2013. Starring James Davidson, Sara Anne Jones, Whitleigh Higuera. 76 minutes.
Are mood and perception-altering drugs a useful tool in transcending the traditional limits of consciousness? Or are they nothing more than a path leading to a dead end? And, at any rate, do the benefits of expanding your mind outweigh the risks? The debate has raged for decades.
It’s probably safe to say that James (portrayed by James Davidson–all the characters in Toad Road share their names with their actors) doesn’t give these questions much thought. He doesn’t seem to have much going on in his life beyond going to parties, taking drugs, listening to punk rock and engaging in outrageous antics with his buds. He just wants to get fucked up, have fun, and get even more fucked up.
That’s when he meets Sara (Sara Anne Jones), a new addition to his circle of so-called friends. A college student living on her own for the first time, she’s naïve, curious and highly impressionable. She’s ready to try new things, forbidden things, things previously denied her. Including drugs.
James and Sara begin dating, and she begins her experimentation with recreational pharmaceuticals–everything from weed, shrooms and acid to having someone blow the contents of a Vicks inhaler into her eyes.
One night, James describes a local urban legend. Out in the woods, he tells her, is an overgrown trail known as Toad Road. Long ago, seven iron gates stood along this path. If a traveler walked along this path, as he passed through each gate, his perception became more distorted, more frightening. If he were to pass the seventh and final gate, the traveler would find himself in Hell itself.
The path still exists, but the gates don’t–at least, not physically. Some stories state that you can see the gates at night…or while experiencing an altered state of awareness.
Sara becomes obsessed with the story of Toad Road, and becomes determined to walk the path while under the influence of LSD. It’s a decision that will have disastrous consequences–for her, and for James.
Altered perception, urban legendry, infernal mythology and a cute female lead. These things all live very comfortably in my wheelhouse. I should have loved Toad Road. So wha’ happened? Chalk it up to the hand-held, low-fidelity mumblecore aesthetic employed by the film’s “multi-hyphenate” (writer-director-producer-cinematographer) auteur, Jason Banker.
Banker adopts a documentary approach to both the photography and the editing. In fact, in the film’s early stages I thought it was actually supposed intended as a pseudo-documentary or found-footage exercise. In an early scene, as James depants a fellow party-goer and sets his pubic hair on fire, the actor playing the “friend” has his face blurred out. In terms of the narrative, what sense does that make other than to convince the viewer he’s watching documentary footage? But the narrative never acknowledges someone behind the camera. And I’m not the only person confused by this: I have read pieces on the film describing it as a “documentary.”
I assume Banker wanted Toad Road to have a “cinema verité” feel, to make it feel “real.” Instead, I was actually more aware of the mechanics of the filmmaking, causing me to wonder if Banker shot the footage intending to make a documentary and only later deciding to incorporate it into a fictional framework. (My research indicates this may well have been the case.) He fills the film with touches presumably intended to heighten the audience’s sense that they were watching something that actually happened; however, these elements only strengthened the Brechtian divide between me and what I was watching.
Characterization is minimal, and largely consists of people treating each other like garbage. Who cares? I don’t get anything out of watching this particular group of unpleasant jerks be unpleasant to each other. It’s not educational, it’s not emotionally powerful, it’s not scary, it’s not entertaining. In a scene late in the film, James stands on the street and practically begs passers-by to beat him unconsciousness, and I don’t feel bad for him because of his emotional degradation. I don’t even think, “Geez, what a fucking moron.” I don’t feel anything. Maybe I yawn, but that’s it. I simply don’t care.
And that’s because these characters do not seem real. Banker found a bunch of non-professional actors, named their characters after them, and allowed them to improvise their dialog and some of their scenes and it still doesn’t bring them to life.
I don’t blame the cast for this; it looks like they’re all playing themselves anyway, and nobody’s embarrassingly bad, so that’s not the problem. The problem is a story that is deliberately vague and withholds crucial information from the audience by the ton. Nobody seems to have much of a history, it’s hard to tell how the characters fit together, and almost impossible to tell some of the minor characters apart. Yet Toad Road expects to be patted on the head for being “challenging” and “intelligent” and “thought-provoking” and refusing to lead the audience by the hand.
And it’s a shame, because there’s something potentially really good at the core of Toad Road, something that Jason Banker obscures with his vague “script” and obtrusive stylistic touches. Maybe it is really there–like A Horrible Way to Die and Resolution, two films with similar styles that I also strongly disliked, it’s garnered critical acclaim. Maybe I just don’t get it. I hope so.
Postscript: Toad Road ends with a caption reading, “Dedicated to the memory of Sara Anne Moore.” She passed away in September, 2012, apparently of an accidental drug overdose. I rewatched it with that knowledge, and some additional details gleaned from this article about Jones and Toad Road, and I found that while it didn’t make me appreciate the film more, the fictional story did reflect, in a weird way, what little I know about her life.