Russia is now about as famous for its dashcam footage as it is for its novels.The comparison is, of course, a joke. And it’s also sort of not. The epic sweep of War and Peace and the intimate psychological study of Crime and Punishment (and later modernist works such as Petersburg and We), all capture the psyche of a national society at specific moments in history. The wide variety of situations and people captured by dashcams gives us a similar window, allowing us to peek unobtrusively and observe the products of conditions and culture.
The Road Movie delivers on its premise: an hour ten or so of Russian dashcam footage. The footage itself is almost always enthralling, gut-wrenching, horrific, tragic, and most frequently some combination of those (and many more adjectives). It’s a lot of car crashes and near misses. There’s also choice footage of people using violence (or threats of violence) to solve their traffic problems. And there’s stuff that’s banaler but no less interesting, such as a couple people totally unable to figure out how their dashcam works.
But as captivating as director Dimitrii Kalashnikov’s premise can be, it is also the film’s biggest flaw.
Watching the footage Kalashnikov compiled is a lot of fun. For a while. With a runtime of just under an hour ten, it starts to feel a bit long after forty-five minutes. A compilation of raw and unfiltered footage captured almost inadvertently by people is a great concept. But by the end, the film starts to wear a little thin. A little more trimming would have been welcomed.
The Road Movie is marketed as a documentary. And I guess by definition it is — it’s documenting what happens on Russian roads and highways. But I see the film as having less DNA in common with documentaries than it does with Youtube compilation videos. (Throughout the film, I wondered with amazement how Kalashnikov managed to dig up all these videos. The breadth of research! I thought. The treasure troves he uncovered! How did he track all this stuff down? The internet is how. Video sharing sites. All the videos are cited.) Does this judgment say something about me? Maybe. I could be stuck in my old fashioned ways and resistant to redefining what forms films should and shouldn’t take in order to be a certain thing.
But when I think about the great documentaries I’ve seen, I remember what great stories they told, both big and small ( Gates of Heaven); I remember the details of people and places meticulously captured and presented to us (Law and Order). I remember reckoning my conclusions about the world with new and contradictory evidence (Trophy). The Road Movie doesn’t do any of these things. And that’s okay. It’s a fun movie full of events I didn’t believe even as I was seeing them unfold before my very eyes. There’s room for that kind of movie. I take my well-crafted “lowbrow entertainment” like John Wick with as much enthusiasm as my hoity-toity classic dramas like The Godfather.
If that’s the case then why bring all this up in the first place?
Here’s your answer: the dashcam footage is cool. There’s nothing like seeing the full range of human emotions. And even better, we get to see how these emotions are interpreted and come out the other side of so many mental filters of so many different people. But. As well-paced and reasonably thought out as the compilation is, it feels like the appendix to the essay rather than the essay itself.
Watching the footage raised questions I wish the film had engaged with. The first and foremost question for me was why? Why are dashcams so common in Russia? What societal factors gave rise to the proliferation of dashcams? Another question: what are the statistics on road accidents in Russia? Are there more incidents in Russia than in other countries, or does the commonality of dashcams just give the perception? If there are more incidents in Russia, see the questions above about societal factors.
There’s so much to chew on under the surface of The Road Movie that I hope Kalashnikov makes a follow-up movie interrogating his own work. This film seems like step one of a grander study. An entertaining step one, but a step one nonetheless.
But if you go in with the right mindset and are willing to take the film for what it is, you’ll have a lot of fun. I certainly did.
And, if you listen very closely, you might just learn how to drop the f-bomb in Russian.
The film hits theaters on January 19.