Duhamel plays Mitchell, an erstwhile musician who gave up his dream of rock stardom to earn a fat salary in the financial sector instead. As we learn through screenwriter Kyle Killen’s well-written dialogue, after the love of Mitchell’s life broke up with him, he married another woman on the rebound and has been living a dull suburban life as a husband and father. His wife convinced him to get rid of his guitars. Carter, meanwhile, is an unemployed, unpublished writer who lives in his car but refuses to forego his dream of being a novelist.
Stranded in Death Valley, their frustration mounts. Carter harangues Mitchell for betraying his principles. In turn, Mitchell tells Carter that his “writing sucks,” and that he’s the last person from whom Mitchell would ever accept a “life intervention.” Harsh words turn into physical fighting, and soon the pair is bloodied and half-dead by the roadside, as burning sun falls to ice-cold night and back again. The unlucky travelers are so thirsty that they start drinking the truck’s windshield-washer fluid. Even worse for Mitchell, he has a broken foot and is hobbling around on crutches, for a reason that is never explained.
Killen wrote Scenic Route like a play. In fact, some scenes were rehearsed onstage before being filmed. The stationary truck may well have been a stage prop, and the dramaturgy that unfolds evokes hints of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The movie, which works toward a surprise conclusion, ends up being unexpectedly gripping and profound, raising questions about the nature of friendship, youthful dreams, adult compromises, and mankind’s place in the world.
In an unfortunate era of Hollywood franchise factories and comic book superheroes, when genuine drama has been supplanted by empty spectacle, Scenic Route remains a welcome reminder of the grown-up gravitas independent cinema can still provide. Five years on, let’s help this film continue to build the audience it deserves. Seek it out.
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