by Jack Gillespie
When reading up on Back Roads prior to viewing it, a willingness to touch upon dark, taboo themes was within its plot. I was expecting something quite uneasy. Back Roads delivered on that aspect, but from an angle that was not expected. For a movie considered a drama, it isn’t really a dramatic film; there are moments of emotional intensity, but most of the film drama is more subtle and bubbles under the surface.
The bleakness of Back Roads is prevalent throughout the entirety of the film, but it evolves and escalates. In the first half of the film, there is almost a mystery novel whodunit feeling as Harley tries to uncover all of the details of his father’s murder that his mother was arrested for. But as the film goes on, the importance of the murderer slowly fades away. Who did it does not seem to matter anymore; all that is significant is how his presence and death has slowly destroyed Harley and the rest of the Altmyer family.
The film’s plodding pace and subtle, eerie mood is only emphasized with Alex Pettyfer’s portrayal of Harley Altmyer. It’s obvious from his performance that Harley is someone damaged by his traumatic past; most scenes with him give off an uncomfortable, off-kilter vibe. A big part of that is that it seems in quite a lot of his scenes, there is always a second-long pause between dialogue. It’s a choice that does create an eerie tone in some interaction, such as a lot of his early scenes with Jennifer Morrison’s character, but more often than not it makes an already slowly-paced film seem even slower. Overall, Pettyfer delivers an interesting, if not flawed, performance that encapsulates the mood of Back Roads.
The quality of the performances run the gamut, from mediocre and/or awkward (Nicola Peltz and Chiara Aurelia as Amber and Misty Altmyer), to solid but not spectacular (Alex Pettyfer’s Harley Altmyer and Jennifer Morrison as Callie), to short but scene-stealing (Juliette Lewis as Bonnie Altmyer, June Carryl as Harley’s therapist).
The weakest part of the characters is their development. The Altmyers, the family the entire film is supposed to revolve around, are the biggest victims of the film’s Achilles Heel. Harley, while he is the most developed character, is mostly defined by being awkward, quiet, and having a drinking problem. Amber, the oldest daughter, is esentially just a bratty teenage girl archetype cranked up to 11 and easily the most unlikeable character of the film. While it is not expected for young children characters to be as deep as their older counterparts, Jody Altmyer has next to no character.
For a movie like Back Roads, it is imperative that the main characters seem realistic and three-dimensional. They don’t necessarily need to perfect or kind people, the leads of Back Roads make their share of questionable decisions, but they need to seem like real people to make the drama and tragedy that much more tangible. So when Harley and his sisters are going through struggle after struggle, there is a layer of separation that makes it feel less poignant. Their trauma of child abuse and losing their mother and father does give the audience something to sympathize with them for, but other than that there is no reason for viewers to care for them as people.
Featured image: Heartland
One of art’s main goals is to elicit a reaction from its audience. In those terms, Back Roads is quite the success. It is a heart-wrenching film that skillfully shows the bleakness and hopelessness of the Altmyer family’s downward spiral. But looking past the story and the better performances, there are a lot of faults that come with the film. For those who love movies that will slowly tear your heart out, and even those who just want a powerful cinematic experience, Back Roads is recommendable. Just be willing to look over quite a bit.
Jack is a Journalism major and Sociology minor who has been writing about media for over four years. He used to be a pop music nerd, then an indie music nerd, and now both. If you’ve heard of something queer, pretentious, or artsy, he probably has something to say about it.