What Open Water did for scuba diving with your spouse, Scenic Route should do for road trips in the desert with your best friend. Directors/siblings Kevin Goetz and Michael Goetz have made for one of the most intense, effective movie-going experiences of SXSW... and it's only day two.
The premise is simple: two best friends Mitchell and Carter (Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler, respectively) hit the road to catch up for old times sake. The two have drifted, as adults tend to do, with Mitchell in a stable, if not passion-free marriage and career, and Carter as the aimless slacker. On paper it seems like Duhamel and Fogler are simply playing into their usual archetypes, he the handsome leading man and he the wacky sidekick, but Scenic Road turns it on its head and lets the actors beat the ever-living s**t out of them. Literally.
In fact, that's exactly how Scenic Route begins. We see two men, one of whom is sporting a Travis Bickle-esque mohawk (Duhamel, in what marks his most daring, impressive performance to date), in the middle of the desert, bloodied and bruised, fighting as dirty as the tattered clothes they are wearing. We haven't yet learned that these two are lifelong friends who have let unkind words and the unforgiving elements get to them. One of them takes a crutch to the other one's temple and everything goes dark. Only, that's not the beginning of the story, or the end for that matter.
The movie starts, innocently enough, as almost a buddy road trip comedy, but it descends into something else entirely. It is part-jet black comedy, part-horror film, part-moral drama, part-human study, and completely and utterly f**ked up. When we meet Mitchell and Carter moments after that shocking opening sequence, they look completely fine. Even more confusing, Mitchell doesn't have a mohawk. So how do they get there exactly?
After Carter makes his old truck they're driving through the desert in break down intentionally to spend more quality time with Mitchell, the two not only have to battle the elements (with no food and no water in the desert, which is as unrelenting in the day as it is the night), but each other. With nowhere to go and increasingly mounting tension, the two friends begin to unravel on each other, saying things they can't quite take back.
High emotions, mixed with the delirium of being stranded in the vast desert — who knew wide open spaces could feel so claustrophobic? It sends the men into a tailspin, not only leading to that ill-advised mohawk (the free-spirited Carter somehow convinces the straight-laced Mitchell to get the haircut he always wanted... in the middle of the night, with a blade from a pocket knife) and eventually that vicious, violent fight.
What happens next, well, I don't want to spoil it for you. But whatever you think happens to these guys after their blood, sweat, and tear-soaked fight doesn't. The last 40 minutes of the movie, fittingly enough, takes a much different road than you thought it would. Somewhere at the intersection of 127 Hours and Buried, you might think you have finally figured out Scenic Route's path, but then it takes its own winding, twisted detour.
While there are some frustratingly distracting moments (including Carter's inane decision to turn down help when they first break down), the dialogue-heavy feature, which spends most of its running time on the side of a dirt road in the desert, never loses your attention. You hang on these men's every action, every word uttered, determined to find out if they make it out of this journey unscathed. Well, relatively speaking.
A veritable case study in grown men, and their relationships with each other (a few visions of Fight Club danced through my head), Scenic Route will make you no less scared of what nature will do to you as compared to what the ones you love are capable of doing to you. Scenic Route is a movie that crawls under your skin and stays there for a while, thanks largely in part to its haunting ending.