Cannibal Holocaust, cinema, cinema verite, drug abuse, experimental film, Film, found-footage, gone before their time, Hallucinogens, horror films, James Davidson, Jason Banker, Movies, psychadelics, Sara Anne Jones, the Seven Gates of Hell, Toad Road, tragedies, twenty-something angst
Full disclosure: I am a firm believer in the strange, the unexplained and the supernatural. Personal experience notwithstanding, this world we inhabit is just too big, too impossible, to not contain more secrets than we could ever imagine. Until we’ve truly poked under every rock, swam to the bottom of every sea and followed every deserted dirt trail to its terminus, we cannot, honestly, say that we know anything about the world we inhabit. We can make educated guesses…we can analyze and test until the cows come home…but at the end of the day…we’re never going to be 100% sure of anything. We must simply have faith that what we believe to be true is so…until something comes along to shatter that believe, of course.
I begin my discussion of Toad Road in this way for a very particular reason: more than almost any film I’ve ever seen (certainly on the short list), this film explodes any notion audiences might have of cinematic reality/unreality, establishing not only a world where anything and everything can be possible but a film where anything can be possible. I’ll be honest: with very few exceptions, I had an almost impossible time telling the fiction from the reality in Toad Road. This, friends and neighbors, is the living definition of a nightmare.
The genius of the film – and the film is genius, make no bones about it – lies in the ease with which we (the audience) continually have the rug pulled from beneath our feet. The story, itself, is pure simplicity: a group of disaffected twenty-something layabouts do massive quantities of every drug imaginable, have sex where they feel like it and generally thumb their nose at society. Into this toxic mix pours the town’s goodie-goodie new girl, Sara. Sara hooks up with James, one of the defacto leaders of the clique and proceeds to throw herself wholehearted into their druggie lifestyle. Sara becomes obsessed with stories about Toad Road, a local urban legend that posits that the Seven Gates to Hell are located in the nearby woods. Ultimately, she convinces James to accompany her as she drops a massive quantity of acid and walks Toad Road. As can be expected, things do not go as planned and James learns the very valuable lesson that Hell can be wherever you are.
As I mentioned, pure simplicity and certainly nothing that we haven’t seen before, especially since the film is occasionally shot in a hand-held, found-footage style. The acting is very naturalistic: these all seem like the kind of wastoids we’ve known (and possibly been in the past) and the tone of cheerful hedonism seems completely honest. These early drug/party scenes have an almost verite style to them, recalling the similar grittiness of Larry Clark’s Kids. Again, nothing we haven’t seen before but well done. And then the rug gets pulled from beneath our feet because…
…this is all really happening. That’s right: the drug/party/debauchery stuff looks so real because it’s actually happening. Take a look at the cast list: most of the characters (with the exception of the odd police officer here or anonymous driver there) have the same name as the actors portraying them. Sara is played by Sara Anne Jones; James is played by James Davidson. The character of Uncle Damon in the film? Played by Damon Johansen.
You see, writer/director Jason Banker didn’t audition his actors: he found them online. In a coup rarely seen (the last time I can remember something like this was Cannibal Holocaust, waaay back in the day), Banker blends the real debauchery of the drugging/partying (smoking massive quantities of weed; doing shrooms; getting so drunk that they all run around their apartment pantless, setting each other’s pubic hair on fire) with the manufactured drama of the story itself. The effect on your psyche is pretty stunning: once you realize that part of the film is actually happening, why not allow for the rest of the story to be taking place? Where does reality end and fiction begin?
I’ll be honest: once I realized what the film was doing, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. In this day and age, films (especially horror films) are way too safe. Gone are the days of danger when you feared that watching Salo or Cannibal Holocaust or Faces of Death would somehow scar you, change you for the worst into some sort of slobbering beast…the Video Nasties era. No matter how well made modern films are, they just don’t possess that sustained sense of dread because modern times are so much different: we’ve seen and done it all, by this point, and modern technology keeps giving us the ability to do even more. Gone are the days of yore when audiences thought the speeding train would careen through the screen and into the theater: we’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, so we know that absolutely anything can be done.
Here’s the trick: once you realize that the partying scenes are real, it makes you question everything else about the film. How much of this was improvised? Written? Were any of the “friends” actually actors (the lead, Sara, was definitely not a professional, despite her amazing performance)? The film deals with pain on many different levels, particularly with the character of Sara: how much of that was real? The climax of the film pulls a few tricks out, here and there, that serve to remind us that at least some of the film is faked (by my count, there were two shots that satisfied the current obsession with “scary faces” in modern horror films but these were brief and altogether unobtrusive) but so much of the movie revolves around the interactions of the group of friends (at least 80%) that it starts to make you wonder about everything. I know that the end was fake because it’s a movie. But what if…
Lest it seem like the only reason to watch Toad Road is for the dizzying combination of truth and lie, let me set your mind at ease: the film is absolutely stunning in every possible way. When the footage is not hand-held, the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, particularly all of the beautiful snow and winter footage. The sound design is amazing, especially in the scene where they visit a local cave: the sound of wind chimes begins to get louder and louder on the soundtrack until it’s an all-encompassing force, coming from nowhere and yet going everywhere. And that acting…wow…that acting.
Special attention must be paid to the film’s lead and emotional/moral core, Sara. If there is an arc to the story (and there certainly is), it would be Sara’s journey from good girl to lost soul. Her obsession with Toad Road and psychedelics turns her into a completely different character by the film’s end, one stronger and, yet, more vulnerable than she began. There is a moment in the film where Sara explains what each of the Seven Gates of Hell symbolizes and I’ll be honest: I was completely transfixed. The scene could have gone on for 30 seconds or 30 minutes: it was all the same to me. I simply couldn’t take my eyes from the screen, lest I miss one single thing that she said.
And here, of course, is one of the biggest kickers, the fact that proves how truly haunted Toad Road really is: Sara Anne Jones is now dead. She died of a drug overdose shortly after the film was finished, further blurring the line between reality and fantasy: the character of Sara took her journey to its natural conclusion and, so too, would it seem the actual Sara did the same thing.
It’s a tragic epilogue to a brutally sad film, a movie that makes Requiem for a Dream look like a Calgon commercial. The film is brutal and heartbreaking and absolutely brilliant. There are moments that will make you question not only the world around you but the world inside you, as well. These are lost souls, burned-out candle stubs. By the time that James realizes how much of a waste his life is, by the time that he realizes how desperately he and Sara need to get away, it’s already too late.
The actual meaning behind Toad Road may be a little gauzy but I’m pretty sure I got it, anyway: this is one of the single, greatest anti-drug films in the history of cinema. This is a film for anyone who’s ever been there, anyone who ever got out and anyone who’s ever lost someone who couldn’t. It’s a powerful film, one that I won’t forget anytime soon. Aside from the beautiful cinematography, there’s nothing pretty or sweet about this film. The best way that I can sum the whole thing up is to quote that paragon of optimism, Friedrich Nietzsche:
“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
Toad Road was the abyss and it looked right through me.