End of the Road is a tropey and dopey road thriller
The Queen Latifah-starring killer-car movie is bang in the middle of the heap.
End of the Road starts promisingly – especially if you go in blind. I didn’t read up on the film at all, so the sight of a single Black mother named Brenda (Queen Latifah) missing her late husband made me believe that this is going to be a story about grief. It opens with Brenda shopping for a cross-country road trip; she is moving her two kids and pothead brother to Texas because they can’t afford the Los Angeles rent anymore. She looks broken, in need of divine intervention, and she’s trying everything to keep the family together. Her kids aren’t happy to leave LA. The stage is set for a difficult, moving reflection on love, loss and identity.
But that’s where the road ends. Suddenly, the Millicent Shelton-directed movie morphs into a one-note road thriller. Brenda speaks of her father being a Colonel in the army and how he taught her how to hunt and use a gun – a not-so-subtle sign of the chaos that lies ahead. Brenda takes a diversion through the “badlands” of New Mexico, only for the family to confront every trope in the book: Racist white gangsters, a motel murder, a bag of money, a local sheriff, a cartel deal gone wrong, an abduction and a mysterious hillbilly killer. Naturally, all these life-or-death experiences are supposed to heal the African-American family and bring them closer. But it’s just so designed, so devoid of depth and poignancet, that it’s hard to resist the irony of the title. There are shades of Steven Spielberg’s first film, Duel, a “killer car movie” on an American highway. But that’s too flattering for End of the Road, a film that stops short of bringing in the villains from Halloween and Friday the Thirteenth to complete a full house of horrors.
At one point, Brenda engages in hand-to-hand combat with a bunch of skinheads at a junkyard. At another, a crazy old couple from a bad M. Night Shyamalan film pursues them through the woods in a car chase that’s straight out of a neon-lit Tarantino wet dream. It’s just one trial by fire after another for a family that’s almost exoticized for their skin colour – presented as tough cookies fighting racism on an every-minute basis. Not to mention the amusement-park-level fetisization of the wild wild West, where danger lurks at every corner…and now I’m starting to sound like the creepy prologue of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. This isn’t a terrible film by any stretch of imagination; it’s just jaded and template-riddled, offering nothing new in terms of both narrative thrills and sociocultural significance. Every time the family gets out of a pickle, they go on their merry way only to get into another – the writing lacks emotional continuity, and everything feels like a gimmick to present Brenda as a dangerous-when-wounded mom who stops at nothing to protect her family. The genre is such that either it should be relentless action (like Mad Max: Fury Road) or retro-corny horror (Death Proof). End of the Road wants to be both but ends up as neither, largely because it actually tries to cobble together a heart at the center of it all.
Among the performances, rapper Ludacris is ludicrously inert as the cool pothead uncle in the family. You can’t tell joy from peril on his face, and it’s no wonder big sis Brenda is always so harried about protecting her kids. The young actors are alright, as is Queen Latifah, who puts every ounce of her experience into making lines like “Don’t mess with my family” sound original. I can see why she would do this role at a concept level, though the script evokes a typically trashy Netflix B-movie that can be safely forgotten the second it finishes. There’s a bit of wanton gore and violence in the film, a last-ditch effort to make it seem like it cares for the genre, but there’s no escaping the fact that it was silly to take the detour to begin with. It isn’t Brenda’s fault, of course, but it’s also not her fault that the racial subtext occurs at the cost of framing the American heartland as a nutjob circus – which, in a way, was precisely the sort of flimsy stereotyping and othering that resulted in the election of Donald Trump, and the consequent hate crimes against Black minorities across the nation. The car might be in the middle of nowhere, but the film ironically ensures that they stay in the middle of nowhere even after they reach Texas.
Rating: 2 (out of 5 stars)
End of the Road is streaming on Netflix
Rahul Desai is a film critic and programmer, who spends his spare time travelling to all the places from the movies he writes about.
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