Indiana University graduate Hannah Fidell has directed a couple features, but she’s about to break out in a big way – just as Taylor Sheridan did two years ago with “Hell or High Water.” Fidell’s latest, “The Long Dumb Road,” is an absolute treasure – a road trip picture pairing a young upper-middle class film student with a jack-of-all-trades societal outcast. It sounds cliché, and the initial plot foundation is somewhat predictable, but once “The Long Dumb Road” takes off, it becomes one of the most delightful cinematic journeys of the decade.
Tony Revolori (the young apprentice Zero from “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) plays Nathan (or Nat), a recent high school graduate on his way from his family home in Texas to film school in Los Angeles. Still in Texas but too far away to call his parents for help, Nat’s car breaks down. He walks to the nearest town, finds the local garage, and unexpectedly meets Richard (Jason Mantzoukas), an ex-employee now cursing out his former employer. Richard offers to repair Nat’s car in exchange for a lift to Las Vegas.
While not quite in the same league as that of Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction” (“Know what they call a Big Mac in France?”), the Hannah Fidell and Carson D. Mell screenplay is peppered with some of the most clever dialogue I’ve seen in a motion picture in a long time. As we learn the backstories of our protagonists, we also ascertain those character traits that make them tick.
We learn that Richard is a hothead whose feisty, stubborn streak has lost him more opportunities than it has gained him. We learn that Nat’s life has been comparatively more protected, but it’s his greater opportunity that affords him the ability to more accurately ascertain the pair’s next moves. Richard’s personality is that of the proverbial small dog – all bark and no bite.
We’re first privy to this peculiarity when Nat insists Richard call on his old high school sweetheart in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Since it’s on the way, and Richard apparently can’t stop thinking about her, why not? Richard is downright frightened, but Nat gives him the necessary courage, and the ensuing scene is just the first of several quality vignettes that remind me of those of Star, the magazine-selling heroine of “American Honey,” played by Sasha Lane.
Each stop is its own little play-within-a-play – each forcing either Nat or Richard (and sometimes both) to confront a part of their nature with which they are uncomfortable. As Richard reacquaints with his old girlfriend Stacey (Casey Wilson), Nat shares a revealing discussion with her daughter Ashly (Ciara Bravo).
Two girls at a bar
In Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, our heroes meet up with a couple young ladies, one of whom (Taissa Farmiga) is embarking on her final semester of film school in California. The other seems to be the perfect match for Richard. She’s played by Grace Gummer, the real-life daughter of Meryl Streep. This story reminds me of the double-date scene in Alexander Payne‘s “Sideways” — funny and endearing.
We’re also treated to a seemingly inconsequential pickup truck ride by a boisterous local (Pamela Reed), which turns out to be my favorite of the vignettes – most likely due to its brutal realism. This is one plot thread that could happen to any of us. And the fact that it has no bearing on the overarching adventure is why I’m glad Fidell and Mell kept it in the final edit.
There’s also a meetup with one of Richard’s old buddies (Ron Livingston) who has changed over the years. A lot. This is another of those subplots that exemplify Nat’s superior audacity, even though he’s the far more subdued of the two leads.
This year’s “Hell or High Water”
My only problem with “The Long Dumb Road” is its title. It sounds like that of a stoner comedy or perhaps a retread of “Dumb and Dumber.” Instead, this film is anything but. It’s a real breakout for Hannah Fidell, who is now on her way to that short list of our finest active directors. And Revolori and Mantzoukas could not be more perfectly cast. Unlike in many films, I never pondered who else could have played the lead roles. These two are ideal.
While I thoroughly enjoyed myself throughout “The Long Dumb Road,” what catapulted it onto my list of the year’s best films was the ending. Most road trip pictures have an arc that draws naturally to a close. This one is different. I cannot tell you more without invoking the dreaded spoiler alert, so I’ll simply leave it at this: When the closing credits began to roll, I wondered what happened to the rest of the film. Then I realized the actual ending is in my mind; and it may be different from your ending. This is the same feeling I experienced at the end of Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” – an equally great exercise in filmmaking.
Andy Ray’s reviews also appear on http://youarecurrent.com/category/nightandday/film-reviews/
and he serves as the radio film critic for http://indyboomer.com/radio/