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THE ROAD MOVIE Is a Surprisingly Meditative Russian Dash-Cam Documentary (Review)

Like sweet fruit from the internet meme tree, The Road Movie is comprised solely of footage from Russian dashboard cameras. Dmitrii Kalashnikov–whose last name matches the incendiary challenge of his creation–has found a way to elevate something that otherwise should be resigned to time-killing nights where friends type hurriedly into YouTube to simultaneously one-up and rubberneck over streaming videos.

That’s the natural question, right? How can rabbit holing the “Suggested Videos” sidebar earn a slot on the big screen?

To answer, and to understand why the documentary works so well, we have to try to understand the appeal of watching other people get into accidents. Then we have to figure out how Kalashnikov rose above the simple, lizard-brain spectacle of it.

The YouTube fad of watching Russian dash cam videos offers a kind of liminal safe haven where we can experience the thrill of seeing something extraordinary (a bear running down a highway, a service vehicle gliding over black ice on two wheels) without any fear of getting hurt. We get the jolt, but stay safe, and people in the videos almost always come away without serious injury, too.

The Road Movie has more than its fair share of those jolts, including some profoundly harrowing extended sequences that offer more than the easy clash of metal. In one dash-cam capture, a couple drives cautiously through a wall of smoke as the forest on either side of their two-lane highway is smoldering. A tall tree bursts into flames to their right. You can feel the fear in the woman’s voice as she remarks on how hot it is in the car and pleads with the male driver to stay in the middle of the road.

There are also the short, sharp shocks that reach into your gut and rip a gasp out of you, but it’s sequences like the couple driving through a literal forest fire that allows The Road Movie to offer something that all great movies do: a new sensation. Yes, the documentary is born from the bowels of YouTube glory, but the overall effect of how Kalashnikov has woven each piece together is ultimately more contemplative because this isn’t simply about watching accidents. It’s a punk rock Koyaanisqatsi, where we get a singular window into dozens of people’s lives. Sometimes it’s just to ride along with them, other times we’re viewing what may be on one of the worst days they’ll have, but the more banal sequences inject the film with pathos and create a terrifying uncertainty as to which videos will involve danger and which will conclude with a harmless wave goodbye.

Yet talking about The Road Movie reduces you naturally to clickbait-speak, because the film is made of miniature plots with a hundred spoilable vignettes. “A tank drives in front of this man’s car. You won’t believe what happens next!” This happens in the film, and revealing the punchline would be like trying to perform someone else’s stand-up routine. In fact, these things happen over and over in the film, often creating a deeply ironic tone that paints Russian roads as a place where reality is up for debate.

The road noise is a soothing constant, as is the Russian and Western pop music that punctuates the events while The Road Movie gives us time with the drivers and passengers, represented almost always by their disembodied voices either airing their daily grievances or responding to the unbelievable. It’s unfair, but you can’t help but get a psychological profile of the people you’re listening to and watching. Helpful toward others in need, but ready to take a heavy hammer to your windshield if you tailgate. The treadmill of disasters and near-misses demands attention because it’s never clear from the outset what will happen–Kalashnikov’s mix keeps you guessing, and Russian roads spit in the face of logic. Plus, insane things often happen as a blip out of the corner of your eye.

The exploding vehicles and civic destruction are incredible, but they take a back seat to how the people respond. What would you do if a crazed man jumped on your hood? Or if a service truck just kept backing up toward your car no matter how frantically you honked? Some of the human behavior on display in The Road Movie is baffling, and it leaves you wondering if the footage has captured strange people, or if it’s only offering normal people acting strangely because strange has been thrust upon them.

Seeing these sequences from a safe distance lets us breathe through the panic and appreciate the tiny, hilarious details of what’s really happening. Like when a radio show host opines through a hatchback’s speakers about self-sufficient people talking through their problems democratically, as two drivers fistfight over a traffic dispute and a hundred commuters apathetically roll toward work.

There’s also frustration and bliss in seeing this world through an unmoving eye. In one video, a taxi takes off with a young woman’s bags, so the driver in the car behind it lets her into his vehicle and speeds after the cab; but beyond a bunch of slamming doors and muffled words, we have no sense of the confrontation as it happens. We get the thrill of the inciting incident, the chase, and the resolution, but no climax. It’s a fantastically curious storytelling device mirrored by Kalashnikov regularly dropping us into situations and pulling us out without providing much context or resolution.

It’s a little weird to think of something like this elevated to art, but if the YouTube phenomenon of dash-cam spectacles added an America’s Funniest Videos sheen to cars hitting stuff, this documentary rips it right off. The carnage is still there, but so are the very real people behind the wheel. Maybe it’s because Kalashnikov carefully constructed the movie to create a real sense of meaning. Maybe it’s because there’s meaning in even the smallest human gestures. Maybe it’s just 70 minutes of random accidents. Whatever the case, it’s impossible to look away.

4 out of 5 blini burritos

Images: Oscilloscope Laboratories


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