Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part X): Toad Road (2012) dir. Jason Banker

Logline: After meeting James (James Davidson) and his close-knit group of drug-taking layabouts, the once clean-cut Sara (Sara Anne Jones) soon spirals into substance dependency. But when Sara begins searching for a high that will break down the walls of perception and elevate her into another realm of existence, James grows concerned about the radical shift in her behavior. He's especially worried about her desire to test out an old York, Pennsylvania, urban legend, that of the Seven Gates of Hell erected (literally or figuratively) deep within the woods. No one has made it all the way to the seventh gate and entered into hell, but Sara is determined to cross the barrier, with or without James' help.

Analysis: There's a strong temptation to read Toad Road as a stern note of caution against escalating drug use and addiction, but that would be ignoring the reality of the lives that the film presents us with: if not for the temporary release provided by drugs, and if not for the potential they might hold for opening up gateways to better worlds, then what else is there? We learn that James' parents are worried that his aimless, drug-taking friends are having a bad influence on him, but the truth is that James and his friends are drawn together because they're all equally unmoored from the lives expected of them. We see, particularly during Sara's induction into this group of friends, that no one in this ragtag group of kindred spirits is pressured into doing drugs. Rather, they all independently seek out the temporary escape from their lives that mind and senses-altering substances provide for them, and their association with one another is more akin to a support group than an influential social circle.

The film doesn't condemn or condone these young adults' use of drugs, but it does question the efficacy of their actions. Are they actually achieving liberation from their lives, or merely casting themselves into a sort of purgatory? As Sara explores her hunger for new chemical experiences, to the growing concern of even her constantly narcotized friends, she decides to discover the answer by achieving the ultimate high: an encounter with hell itself. She's determined to pass through the gates of hell symbolized by the town's local urban legend of Toad Road, which James references as a metaphor for the point of no return that one can fall into through irresponsible drug use but which Sara sees as a literal exit. This difference of outlook is the death knell for their romantic relationship, as James isn't brave (or misguided?) enough to take his recreational drug use and temporary sojourns from reality to their extreme. Instead, he imagines out loud the lives that he and Sara might be able to lead together: they can move away and start anew, he can go to college like her, and maybe they'll even get good jobs one day. Sara reminds him that she's failing out of school; she's moved far past the desire for leading a conventional life.

After Sara has slipped through the seven gates, abandoning James, her disembodied voice seems to report back with her findings. As she passed through each successive gate, a little bit more of her previous life-- her self-doubt, pain, disappointed parents, fractured relationships-- faded from existence, replaced by nothingness, through which she gained power. Past the final gate, Sara experienced the embrace of "a black void," offering "ultimate solitude." But, if so, how can she communicate this information from her state of solitude back to us, those imprisoned souls who have refused to pass into hell? Are these words we hear her own, or merely James' imaginings, as he's left behind with his guilt and numbness and only able to hope for the best? We never see the other side that Sara allegedly passes over to, nor the other possibilities it might have to offer, even if those "possibilities" are no more complicated than the oblivion accompanying death. What we do see is life grinding on for James and his wayward friends, and a decided lack of improvement in their situations. And, after long enough, not even the drugs help anymore.

Technical Merits: Toad Road exists as a curious hybrid of style and genre, in part documentary, found footage, low budget drama, and psychological horror. Director Jason Banker, who also wrote the film and acted as its cinematographer, blends Cinéma vérité documentary footage of his cast of non-actors going about their aimless daily business with scripted scenes of those same non-actors contemplating their actions, relationships, and futures. The obvious ease with which the actors perform in the authentic hangout and party scenes provides a nice thematic contrast with the discomfort they appear to display when grappling with the somewhat stilted dramatic scenes, as they endearingly stumble their way through the words written for them. Like the actors who portray them, these characters act more naturally when under the influence of the artificial haze produced by drug and alcohol consumption than they do within the confines of the scripted "reality" that forces them to consider their relationship troubles, family issues, poverty, and collective inability to lead "normal" lives. The film's style is such that the characters' words seem false and contrived whenever they're required to deal with existence beyond the next high or juvenile gag. And that's appropriate, because for them adulthood is a role for which they are poorly suited. When, in one of the film's scripted scenes, James lays out his sketchy plans for attaining a "normal life," he sounds like he's stealing half-remembered lines he once overheard from a bad movie. But when he's having Vicks blown into eyes during one of the many documentary sequences, and he breaks out in tears at the bizarre physical sensation it's producing within him, we witness an uncomfortable human rawness that couldn't be captured in the performance of any actor.

Relevance: This is reality horror. Toad Road captures the meandering, blitzed out lives of its very real characters with uncanny, documentary precision. Because the film is, in part, a document of its actors' actual lives, it also stands as a universalizing summation of the general malaise felt by so many emotionally deadened suburban teens and twentysomethings. I knew a version of every one of the film's developmentally stunted characters back in high school. Our parties looked exactly like the parties they throw (with fewer hard drugs, maybe), and our stunts and pranks were much like theirs. Our interactions were as shallow, and our prospects about as promising. We even had our own urban legend out in the woods, and our own ill-advised adventures bent on testing out its reality. The  film understands, as we implicitly did, that the societal expectations for those youths of the mid-to-lower middle class to develop into "normal human beings" can be crippling, and that the appeal of simply slipping away from it all, by aide of illicit substances or by some worse method, is difficult to ignore. That the film can't settle upon which fate is worse-- oblivion or the average life of an American adult-- points towards an existential horror that's far more chilling than any monster creeping in the forest.

The real life death of actress Sara Anne Jones from a drug overdose not long after the film's completion stands as a tragic, melancholy reinforcement of the film's observations, and it situates the fictional action as a truer reflection of reality than we might like to admit. Toad Road is haunted by Jones's ethereal image. (Eerily, the last time we see her in the film, she's swallowed up by a gigantic video distortion leading to hell, as if the medium itself has consumed both character and actress.) If we are aware of Jones's death going into Toad Road, her presence compels us to wonder about the validity of her character's claims. Is there an alternative to the existence we're pressured to embrace? Is it possible to enter hell and emerge out the other end, into the possibility of "something better, something real"? Or do we, in our search for that other plane of existence, only manage to kill ourselves, out of frustration, ennui, or fear? We can't possibly know. The fictional Sara and the actual Sara aren't around to tell us, and we're left, like James is, slamming our fists uselessly against the foundations of the unfinished structures we've built around us, hoping for it all to collapse but knowing it won't.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds utterly fascinating but I'll have to find the right night to watch it. I remember hearing about Sara Anne Jones' overdose and to be honest it put me off seeing the film... but as you suggest, it's things like that that no doubt make for such a powerful viewing experience. My curiosity is certainly piqued and especially after reading your write-up.