Sunday, April 21, 2024

‘End of the Road’ Takes Too Many Detours

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As feature debuts go, Millicent Shelton’s End of the Road holds much promise. Shelton knows how to keep her frames visually dynamic and isn’t afraid of lighting choices that give the film a feeling like the characters have stepped into “The Twilight Zone.” Shelton and her cinematographer Ed Wu do their best to make End of the Road visually appealing and engaging.

Recently widowed Brenda (Queen Latifah) and her family are moving from LA to Houston. Her late husband, Jake, has recently died of cancer, the medical debt forcing the family to relocate. So the four of them, Brenda, Cam (Shaun Dixon), Kelly (Mychala Faith Lee), and Brenda’s brother Reggie (Chris Bridges), pile into the family car and hit the road.

Desperate for conversation, Cam asks if any Black people live in Houston. Cam’s question prompts a scene where Brenda and Reggie list off hip-hop and rap artists from the area. It’s a sly moment refuting the all-too-white notion that the south has no Black people.

The family is still grieving from Jake’s death, with Cam and teenage Kelly’s relationship with Brenda feeling the strain. The death of their father is a through-line of the film, albeit, not a solid one. Brenda is seen a couple of times looking heavenward and asking for help from Jake. Yet by the end, when things have spiraled beyond reasonable expectations and she does this, it feels tacked on because she hasn’t done this consistently throughout the movie. Just a couple of times in the beginning.

Unfortunately for Brenda and her family, this will not be a relaxing road trip. The road to Houston is long and paved with mysterious drug lords, a bag of stolen money, horned-up rednecks, the police, and a small desert community of white supremacists.

Shelton, Wu, and the characters are forced to contend with Christopher J. Moore and David Loughery’s script. The script can never decide exactly how far it wants to go, much less what genre it wants to be. Some films, like Adam Wingard’s 2014 The Guest, can change genres every ten minutes, and it only enhances the movie because it creates an almost tactile unpredictability. But you have to take swings if you do that and while there are some attempts, Moore and Loughery never lean into the pitches.

end of the road
Brenda (Latifah) tries to defuse a dangerous situation

From the jump, End of the Road shows signs of what it wants to be. Shelton opens up with Brenda at her local gas station, buying supplies and having her card declined. Shelton and Wu use extreme angles to help communicate stress and unease. Craig DeLeon’s score adds a synthonic eerie pulse to the movie. However, as the opening credits roll and the mournful stylings of Alicia Keys play over credits, we begin to feel as if Shelton is attempting to blend modern sensibilities into a well-worn genre.

End of the Road works best when mining the myriad ways life in America feels like a paranoid thriller for Black people. Shelton plays with the concept early on, where two older white boys leer at Kelly while they gas up at a middle-of-nowhere gas station. Kelly is a confident girl; she politely tells the boys to leave her alone, using her middle finger. 

The two boys proceed to chase and nearly run the family off the road as they jeer and holler. Again, Shelton and Wu do a great job of making this moment feel like an unfolding nightmare. Kelly tells her mom why the boys are taunting them, which leads Brenda to tell her daughter she can’t behave like that in the south. Ultimately, it’s when End of the Road explores how Black people must always be aware of their surroundings is when it is the most engaging.

Shelton and Wu slyly imply the threat of violence without ever fully going over the line. However, it was here that I realized that nothing would happen to these characters. Wu’s camera frames Brenda through the trigger guard of a shotgun inside the redneck’s pick-up, a haunting image that End of the Road ultimately squanders.

Moore and Loughery’s script laboriously lurches from one scene to the next, often losing any momentum built up in the previous scene. A few scenes are pretty good, but they feel disparate despite the connective narrative thread. At certain points, the family feels like a real family, such as how they behave in the motel room, rowdy and playful with each other. At others, they feel like stock characters being put through the motions, such as when Brenda complains “We need to behave like a real family,” a question that rightfully has everyone else confused.

While at a motel, the family overhears an argument in the room next door. Soon they hear gunshots and the sounds of a car peeling out of the parking lot. Brenda, an ER nurse, rushes over, along with Reggie, to see if anyone is hurt. They call the cops, make their statements, and continue on down the road.

Eventually, the soft-spoken officer Captain Hammers (Beau Bridges) wanders into the movie. Bridges play Hammers like a kindly good ol’ boy: soft-spoken, while at the same time we get the feeling that he has seen and done things that betray his kindhearted nature. With his ambling gait and southern drawl, he seems like a man a few steps ahead of his underlings.

Meanwhile, Brenda and her family have hit the road again, leaving before Hammers could talk to them. Little does Brenda know that Reggie has found a bag of money and has taken it. This puts them into the sights of the infamous Mr. Cross. Curiously, End of the Road doesn’t show us Reggie discovering the bag or even the family talking to the cops before leaving. Instead, Brenda answers a number she’s never seen before, telling them they have the wrong number. Reggie witnesses this and a few scenes later, tells her about the money. I found hard it to believe Brenda would answer a number she didn’t recognize, but maybe that’s just me.

This spins End of the Road from the classic “found item” story into a slightly more complicated “series of unfortunate events.” Sadly, Moore and Loughrey’s script doesn’t feel like one thing after another, so much as ambling from one place to the next. All the while, the specter of Mister Cross hangs over the movie, his identity unknown.

Except, Mr. Cross’s identity is pretty obvious, considering Moore and Loughery’s script falls victim to Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters. Whenever there is a character the film goes out of its way to conceal, and the cast is relatively small, said character is likely a character we already know. Suffice it to say, the reveal isn’t as shocking as Shelton was hoping for, but that’s okay. End of the Road begins to unravel into a series of scenes that would feel right at home in a grindhouse.

At one point, Latifah’s Brenda is forced to fight an entire community of white supremacists. If End of the Road build-up to that scene, then it would be fantastic. Heck, if the movie were just that, I’d pay the full ticket price. But alas, it is merely part of a random series of events that feels disconnected.

Latifah’s Brenda is a woman struggling to regain a sense of normalcy and stability in a world that seems committed to making sure she never has either. Latifah brings a gravitas to her role, but at the same time, her presence also says this is a movie that will play it safe. The scene where Brenda whoops a boatload of nazi butt is simultaneously gratifying and anti-climatic.

However, the final scene End of the Road becomes a different beast altogether. Masks come off, identities are revealed, and all-out brawls with booby traps, car chases, and shotgun blasts to the head, making the movie go out on a high note. It was if the movie was saving its violence for one scene and then they cashed in and cashed in hard. Deliriously chaotic and violent, it’s a pity the rest of End of the Road feels more like an entirely different movie than a build-up to a grandiose finale.

End of the Road is a family exploitation drama that never figures out how to blend the disparate tones required. Though Shelton and Wu give us a few moments where they pull it together, it is all the more disheartening that End of The Road, like the southwest desert it takes place in, feels flat and arid despite being nice to look at.

Sometimes you can watch a movie and feel the talent behind the screen while also feeling them struggling. End of the Road is a tonally confused movie that can never decide what it wants to be. Still, when I wasn’t irritated by its half-measures, I was delighted when it chose to go full bore.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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