Written and Directed by: Jason Banker
Starring: James Davidson, Sara Anne Jones, and Whitleigh Higuera
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"This is the first time in my life that I've been able to do what I want and not feel guilty about it."
A grim specter hangs over Toad Road thanks in no small part to an unsettling instance of life imitating art. Originally conceived as a documentary about the lives of young drug addicts, Jason Bankerís film became something of a narrative horror film still focused on the terrors of addiction and took an even darker turn when star Sara Anne Jones died of a drug overdose shortly after its premiere. While I canít say the film isnít supremely flawed, the combination of this revelation and the film's final twenty minutes (when it finally embraces its horror elements) also makes it difficult to deny it doesnít effectively capture the haunting, mind-bending desperation of addiction.
That said, the film seems hell bent on making sure you donít feel much sympathy at all for these particular users. After an eerie opening sequence that finds James (James Davidson) stumbling out of the woods and hitchhiking home, Toad Road flashes back to what passes as happier times for him and his group of slackers. With seemingly little ambition outside of chasing their own personal dragons, they spend each night looking for new ways to get high and reveling in the aftermath by playing juvenile games of ďGay ChickenĒ and lighting themselves on fire. Bankerís documentary roots are evident here, as he hangs loose during ragged, semi-improvised scenes whose cumulative effect amounts to a languid hangout filmóonly you really donít like who youíre hanging out with.
Most of this bunch is, quite frankly, pretty insufferable. Iím not sure exactly how authentic these portrayals are, but they feel like broad, cartoon takes on stoners: lots of pretentious dialogue (accentuated by some truly awful line readings), meandering thoughts, and generally shitty behavior (if not for drugs, youíd wonder if these folks would be friends otherwise). Any and every druggie clichť is on display here, and, when compounded with Bankerís elliptical, impressionist style, you start to get a good idea of what it might have looked like if Terrence Malick or Harmony Korine had directed Spun. I doubt it would have been this grating, though, as Toad Road is an endurance test, so much so that I was actively rooting for the horror elements to come and swallow most of these characters whole.
Speaking of which: once those emerge, the film begins to take shape and direction. Local college student Sara (Jones) is drawn into Jasonís crowd and develops an unhealthy interest in increasingly dangerous drugs. Her fascination coincides with her discovery of a local legend involving Seven Gates to Hell, an urban folk tale that really got my Fulci senses tingling. As the story (based on actual York, PA lore) goes, Toad Road was once home to an insane asylum that went up in flames, with the only remnants being the seven gates erected to (supposedly) keep the inmates from escaping. These days, itís (allegedly) a portal to hell, accessible only by an innocuous dirt path leading out into the woods. If nothing else, Banker picked a hell of a locale and legend, and the scenes set here make for a disquieting vision quest into the woods. Situating the mouth of hell right in the middle of a creepy forest where dead leaves have obscured the ground recalls a House by the Cemetery vibe, and Saraís decision to trek to the devilís threshold easily makes for the filmís most effective stretch.
Bankerís handling of Sara and Jamesís excursion is purely psychologically, though: donít expect to see mad, bloodthirsty butchers or undead corpses rising from the forest here. Instead, Toad Road revels in ambiguity and mind-bending time-shifts as James attempts to recollect just what happened and account for Saraís mysterious disappearance. Toad Road coyly skirts around the answer and is content to let audiences to endure Jamesís hell of forgetfulness along with him. In this case, the infernal torments are an obvious metaphor for addiction, with James and Saraís trip taking on a highly figurative bend and each level of hell resembling another phase of drug-addled transcendence. Toad Road promises the stuff of urban legends but delivers something much more authentic and harrowing in the characterís fractured psyches and desperate pleas for help.
Through it all, Sara emerges as a bizarrely tragic, sympathetic figure, especially when juxtaposed with the burned-out losers around her. Watching the film, it struck me that she was the only authentic one of the bunch, and learning of Jonesís passing felt ominous, as if the film had managed to blur fiction in reality in the most unfortunate way. Obviously, this was far from intended and yet it shadows Toad Road in a rare way: I was all set to dismiss it as yet another movie with a fine concept sabotaged by poor execution but to do so now feels almost callous, especially since Banker captures something rather hellish after the nigh-unbearable setup.
Even James manages to evolve from predatory creep to a pathetic figure once he becomes consumed with guilt and despair. Some of his final moments in the film defy reason; having already turned to and been betrayed by drugs, he longs for physical torments to match his psychological penance, like some kind of junkie martyr. I almost have to consider the effectiveness of the approach in its ability to refract upon likeminded dismissive viewers: itís easy to write off the abrasiveness of some drug abusers (especially those zealots who equate drugs to a spiritual experience), but itís also true that many of them are just lonely, desperate people looking for anything to compensate for the holes in their lives. Toad Road might ultimately be memorable for an awful reason, but I donít know if Iíll be able to shake it any time soon. Rent it!
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