For Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise, life also gets more complicated (and dangerous), as a result of their journey, which, like Bonnie and Clyde, ensues with no real destination, but with more innocent beginnings. Both dissatisfied with their relationships (coincidentally, Louise's boyfriend, Jimmy stays on the road as a musician), the waitress Louise (Susan Sarandon) and housewife Thelma (played by Geena Davis) run away from their unhappy lives and hit the highways of the rural U.S. No longer suffocated by their demeaning existence, they explore their sexual freedom (in the case of Thelma, explored with J.D., memorably played by a young Brad Pitt), and discover strength they never knew they had (as witnessed in their lethal encounter with a smarmy truck driver). Initially intended as a fun getaway, this road trip goes haywire. Similarly themed films that use the road to escape the law include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, David Lynch's rocked out Wild at Heart, and Natural Born Killers (1994), among others. And then there's the psycho/serial killer road movie, such as Kalifornia, with Juliette Lewis prepping for NBK, The Hitcher, and a playful, if still disturbing, variation, Joy Ride. And let's not forget the cult classic Freeway, a sickly funny take on the Red Riding Hood fable, with Reese Witherspoon in the "Red" role, and Kiefer Sutherland as the wolf in creep's clothing. "Them are some mighty big fuckin' teeth ya got there, Bob."
In pro-female Thelma & Louise, the road movie's main characters deepen their bond with one another, often assuring (as touring musicians can attest) "what happens on the road stays on the road." Miles and Jack (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) abide by this unwritten code in Alexander Payne's Sideways, a cyclical journey though southern California's wine country that, despite the gorgeous scenery, is more about the relationship between the two men, the revealing of their strengths and many shortcomings, and how they cope with life's disappointments. We know their journey - Jack's last vacation as a single man - will end a week later, but we don't know the joyride will lead to such dramatic, life-shaping results. (If anything, Payne's previous film, About Schmidt, also a road movie, was more depressing.)
While Miles and Jack's vineyard tour produced a lot of sour grapes, other road movies give us a couple of hours to just kick back and enjoy the ride. It's a party on two or four wheels. Of the silly variety, we have the family-bonding-by-mishap National Lampoon's Vacation and its offshoots, all the way up to the stoner variations like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle; of the dancing-atop-van-to-Gloria Gaynor variety as seen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; and of the altered states variety, we have cinematic interpretations of gems such as Terry Gilliam's whacked out adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which follows the journey of a gonzo journalist (Johnny Depp) and his Samoan lawyer (a large Benicio Del Toro) to the sparkling entertainment Mecca in a convertible called the Red Shark, a trip fueled by copious amounts of LSD and alcohol.
There are other romantic road movies to follow It Happened One Night, with one of the better examples being Stanley Donen's pleasing Two for the Road, with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney as a married couple. In this film, the road is traveled upon several times over the course of the couple's tumultuous relationship, jumping back and forth in time.
Other types of roads
There are also rock n' roll road movies, like Almost Famous (in which Patrick Fugit plays a version of Cameron Crowe, as a teen hitting the road with a rock band, learning the ropes of rock journalism - and love), and the underrated Canadian rocku/mockumentary Hard Core Logo. Then there are the silly but fun road movie epics with bloated casts, like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Cannonball Run and the satire The Big Bus, which have little artistic merit but loyal audiences nonetheless. And more political road movies, like Spike Lee's Get on the Bus, about African Americans heading to D.C. for the Million Man March, or Michael Winterbottom's In This World, that have artistic merit but never found a big audience. And then there are Wim Wenders road movies, which are a sort of sub-genre by themselves (Paris, Texas being the masterpiece of the group, with Kings of the Road and Alice in the Cities also fine).
If you mix buddy movies with road movies you get buddies on the run movies, which are plentiful, too - with Midnight Run being one of the better examples, and the Oscar-winning brother-bonding movie Rain Man one of the more famous. There are also road movie thrillers, the cinematic equivalent of white knuckle driving, like Georges Clouzout's masterfully suspenseful, South American-set Wages of Fear [or the restored version] (and its decent American remake, Sorcerer), about desperate truckers carrying nitro glycerin through the dangerously winding roads of the Andes.
An introduction to road movies wouldn't be complete without mentioning the epitome of road movies, the 1969 counterculture classic Easy Rider. With motors humming, two long hairs (Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) travel from L.A. to New Orleans on their motorcycles and encounter characters odder than them: A rancher and his family, a hitchhiker and his hippie commune community, prostitutes, and Jack Nicholson, who gave a standout performance as the drunken lawyer, George Hanson. A tag line sums up the film, and road movies in general, best: "A man went looking for America...and couldn't find it anywhere!" Easy Rider also begat some odd, dark, even bleak cross-country road movies in the early 1970s, like Richard Sarafian's minimalist Vanishing Point and Monte Hellman's near-brilliant, underrated (now back in print) Two Lane Blacktop, or Steven Spielberg's brilliant, nearly dialogue-free (and made for TV) exercise in road terror, Duel (starring the just departed Dennis Weaver).
Heather Johnson is an independent music and entertainment writer, contributing editor to Mix magazine, and author to-be living in San Francisco.