The road movie is a uniquely American creation. There’s something about the sense of space, opportunity and freedom about the American landscape and mentality that makes great road movies work.
Could you imagine a road movie set in the UK? Of course not. For one thing, the film wouldn’t be very long, because after 70 miles of driving you hit the sea. And in the hour that takes, the sense of freedom and escape would be hampered by road works, service stations and two lorries attempting to overtake each other… with… agonising… slowness….
No, America is as much the stage of a road movie as the setting. In a road movie, you can see those rolling vistas, an endless horizon of a thousand possibilities and the privilege of space America has to offer.
But how do you define a road movie? It can’t just be about getting from point A to point B. If that were the case, every movie from The Matrix to Apocalypse Now could be considered a road movie. There are 3 things you’ll most commonly find in every road movie:
- A true road movie is about an escape from persecution, either physical or emotional.
- A some point during the course of the movie, the character’s only motivation is to move forward.
- Road movies end badly. When the emotional high point of the movie is during the travel, there are only two possible conclusions and both are bad: you die, or you go home.
As we explore this list of great road movies, we’ll come across these themes time and time again.
#10 – Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
#9 – Duel (1972)
#8 – Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
#7 – Locke (2013)
#6 – Two Lane Black Top (1971)
#5 – Easy Rider (1969)
#4 – Five Easy Pieces (1970)
#3 – Vanishing Point (1971)
#2 – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
#1 – Thelma & Louise (1991)
#10. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Little Miss Sunshine is modern day version of the Grapes of Wrath. Like the famous novel, a family takes to the road to California to chase a dream. Their bright yellow VW camper van carries the entire Hoover family (mum, dad, grumpy teenager, suicidal uncle, surly grandfather and a daughter with stars in her eyes) from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California. Along the way they suffer hardships. They fall down and then pick each other up and keep going. And what do they find in California? Promises built on sand.
Little Miss Sunshine deftly balances absurd comedy and solemn heartbreak. The expertly chosen lemon yellow camper van makes this Oscar winning movie one of the most visually striking road movies ever.
#9. Duel (1972)
Every great film maker has made a road movie at some point in their career. Steven Spielberg’s contribution to the canon is Duel, a nerve-wracking suspense thriller that would pave the way for his smash hit, Jaws. Actually made for TV, Duel is a simple but brutally efficient thriller about a salesman, David Mann, travelling through the California desert who is menaced at every turn by a smoke-spewing truck.
Meeting incredulous bystanders in the isolated truck stops and diners where he seeks help, Mann’s trip becomes a nightmare odyssey, as the mild-mannered businessman is forced to rise to the deadly occasion. The truck’s driver is never seen, and his motive never explained, making the rusty juggernaut a terrifying adversary that would later inspire Final Destination 2’s Death-powered, lumber hauling truck.
#8. Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, also known as infamous bank robbers Bonnie & Clyde. This is a road movie in every sense of the word. There is a car in almost every scene. When Bonnie first meets Clyde, he’s attempting to steal a car. The duo’s crime spree shifts into high gear once they hook up with a dim-witted gas station attendant and other members of their crew.
Once they’re on the run, the Bonnie & Clyde Gang’s only purpose is to drive and escape the authorities. The film ends famously with the couple being gunned down by the cops, with their trusty car suffering the same fate.
#7. Locke (2013)
What’s this? A road movie set in the UK? Well… sort of. Locke is a subversion of the classic road movie. It replaces the sense of openness and freedom so common in American road movies with isolation, darkness and confinement. Tom Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a construction boss who’s driving from Birmingham to London.
The entire movie takes place in the car, using the claustrophobic interior and endless monotony of motorway driving at night as a visual metaphor for Locke’s mental state. He’s a man trapped with his problems and even his attempts to escape his mistakes are propelling him down a road he can’t turn off from. Not even for a pee at Luton Services.
#6. Two-lane Black Top (1971)
Two-lane Blacktop is a road movie stripped down to the chassis. The characters have no names but are instead referred to as ‘The Driver’, ‘The Mechanic’ and ‘The Girl’. This movie is just a vehicle (ha ha!) for existential escape.
The story, as much as there is one, concerns two drivers, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, in a 1955 Chevy who get into a race with a top of the line GTO driven by Warren Oates. The race, a classic contest of old vs. new for all the marbles, takes place along Route 66 from New Mexico to Washington D.C. There is almost no dialogue in Two-lane Blacktop. It’s a film about the fetish of speed, movement, and the smell of burning gasoline, excellent in its simplicity.
#5. Easy Rider (1969)
“Easy Rider is a film about a man who went looking for America, but couldn’t find it anywhere.” Written, directed and starring Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider was dubbed the counterculture movie that changed Hollywood. The film concerns two freewheeling bikers named Wyatt and Billy who travel through the American South and Southwest carrying the proceeds from a drug deal.
Famously during the filming of Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper smashed a guitar over the photographer’s head. The photographer was replaced by László Kovács. His distinctive eye and sweeping camera angles helped influence the development of American New Wave films and set the visual standard for road movies to come, most notably Two Lane Blacktop and the upcoming Vanishing Point.
#4. Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Jack Nicholson also starred in Easy Rider, but the following year he found himself in the driving seat in a more subtle, reflective examination of American life and landscape. He plays Bobby Dupea, a blue-collar worker who travels to the Pacific Northwest with his pregnant girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) to attend his dying father. Along his trip through Oregon he takes in oddball hitchhikers, grungy motels, and a famous scene in a diner when Bobby lashes out at a waitress who insists he sticks to the menu.
It’s a film that demonstrates how, as in Locke, a car can act as a physical and emotional cage. At the end of the movie, Bobby abandons Rayette. When she enters a gas station for coffee, he gives her his wallet and leaves her, hitching a ride on a truck headed north. One of the suggested endings to the film was for Bobby and Rayette to drive over a cliff and have the end with the car suspended in mid air. But that ending would have to wait for 21 years before making its way to screen…
#3. Vanishing Point (1971)
Vanishing Point is a visually iconic road movie. If Two-lane Blacktop indulges in the raw obsession of cars and driving, Vanishing Point is a love letter to freedom and speed. A car delivery driver named Kowalski (Barry Newman) bets his drug dealer that he can’t drive a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum 1,200 miles to its delivery point in a single day.
Before long Kowalski is pursued by the police across 4 states, taking in all the breathtaking endlessness of the American mid-west. In his travels, a local radio DJ named Super Soul broadcasts Kowalski’s adventure, turning the chase into a mythic battle against tyranny and oppression by The Man. Super Soul calls Kowalski “the last American hero” and soon gains notoriety from the public who bear witness to his dramatic end.
#2. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The original Mad Max movies were an indictment of America’s obsession and fetishism with cars. But the latest instalment in the franchise is not only an epic, high octane car chase from beginning to end, it’s also a perfect example of the form.
Tom Hardy fills in for Mel Gibson as Max who, alongside Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, flees the tyranny of the patriarch Immortal Joe in search of The Green Place. Over the course of their thrilling escape, the motley crew become a family, but find that their salvation is long gone…
#1 Thelma & Louise (1991)
Thelma & Louise is not only the greatest road movie ever made, it’s a cultural touchstone, a feminist masterpiece and one of Ridley Scott’s finest films. He delights in the iconic imagery of the desert south-west, roadside Americana and the vast, gaping grandeur of the Grand Canyon in the famous final frame.
Waitress Louise (Susan Sarandon) and her friend Thelma (Geena Davis), who lives under the yoke of her domineering husband, head out for a trip into the mountains in a 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible. Things take a turn for the worse when Louise kills an attempted rapist. Believing that no-one will believe their self-defence story, the outlaw pair are left no option but to put pedal to metal for Mexico – with the law in hot pursuit.
Image Credits: Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures.