Writer/director Yam Laranas’ The Road is a surprisingly effective film whose biggest asset is perhaps how comfortable it feels in its own skin. It’s not without the occasional misstep, but it has the confidence to recognize its own assets and be patient with them – doling out scares, shocks and kills at a measured pace that maximizes their impact. Structured as a self contained trilogy, it contains three separate stories that are connected and build upon each other in every way but unfold in a non-linear fashion. It may sound like a lot for a low-budget horror film from the Philippines to juggle, but it’s all pulled off rather nicely.
The film starts off almost like an Amblin movie. Three teenagers – embroiled in a bit of a love triangle on the verge of outgrowing its chastity – boost one of their parents’ cars and head out on an abandoned dirt road. How abandoned is the road? It’s locked, private. Dark. Unpopulated. As is the case in these scenarios, you almost want to scream, “don’t go in there!” But Laranas has already done such a good job establishing the dynamic within this group of friends that you totally buy the dare factor in their venture into the unknown.
The film starts at a languid pace and maintains it, and if you’re not caught up in the inherent suspense it might be a little frustrating waiting for something to happen – but when it happens you’re hooked. The tension displayed in this first act is fairly remarkable. It fully develops every one of the limited amount of means at its disposal. Three kids. A mystery car. The road. The dark. A ghost. And by the end you’re rattled and hooked into the remaining two acts of the film – which significantly expand its scope.
As The Road moves along it focusses on other characters, a police office, a mother, a young boy. Again, their relevance to the central story is slowly revealed, but Laranas has the rare gift of making the viewer feel comfortable not knowing. You realize that you’re in safe hands and recognize that you won’t be let down if you allow yourself to go along for the ride.
A lot of this assuredness makes its way to the screen in other, more immediate, ways. Laranas shot the film himself, and though he might not have the same tools at his disposal as Terence Malick or Andrew Dominik (and to be fair the level of his craft has not yet approached the level of theirs) – his eye aspires to the same school of composition. Beautiful shots of the surrounding countryside provide a nice counterpoint and aesthetic anchor to the horrors unfolding.
Speaking of horrors, there’s a number of them. The bloody bag used in the promos figures heavily, and the film isn’t short on brutality. But one of the film’s most effective and terrifying moments takes place in broad daylight in an unassuming shot. The matter-of-factness with which the violence is treated renders it almost as horrifying as the shot where Leatherface slams the metal door shut in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The Road loses some ground in its final moments, and there’s a requiem for a character that does’t quite feel earned. But aside from some mild hiccups, its tone is fairly constant and it’s never less than engaging. If you go into it with an open mind and are prepared to be patient, it’s a trip well worth taking.