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El Camino

Lifesize Entertainment // Unrated // July 14, 2009
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted July 14, 2009 | E-mail the Author
When a movie is slow and bad, it's boring. When a movie is slow and good, it's deliberately paced. "El Camino" is deliberately paced.

The film, directed by Erik S. Weigel (making his feature debut) and written by Weigel and Salvatore Interlandi, is about as pure as a road movie can get - characters engage in minimal dialogue, as if their shared journey of self-discovery owes more to the passing landscapes than to the time spent with each other. Weigel puts everything to a rhythm that's restrained, almost meditative. It's a tempo that threatens to push things toward boring, but there's enough confidence in the film's quiet tone and enough energy in the performances to push right back.

The road trip involves three young strangers connected when a mutual friend, Matthew, dies of cancer. Elliot (Leo Fitzpatrick) knew him growing up, when they shared a foster family. Lily (Elisabeth Moss) is an ex-girlfriend. Gray (Christopher Denham) is the current friend. All are bitter and lonely, perhaps lost without their anchor. On a whim, Gray and Lily steal Matthew's ashes and plan to scatter them on a Mexican beach; Elliot insists on coming along, offering to pay for the ride.

So begins a journey that smartly and stubbornly refuses to play by the dramatic rules of the road movie, stripping away dramatic artifice and offering instead the merest core of the genre. We never really learn why Matthew meant so much to these three, beyond the sort of connections we can easily assume (Elliot because of a tough childhood, Lily because of romance). And while all three characters "find themselves" (for lack of a better term) on this trip, no growth is forced; there are no stilted monologues, no convenient roundtable discussions about their deepest secrets. It's clear they're thinking about Matthew, and such thoughts are helping them heal, but they're getting more value from staring out the window or walking through a desert than they are through open communication.

This makes the film a struggle at times - the three are enigmas, their thoughts often impenetrable. We're left to look at all those pretty landscapes while the dramatic growth occurs outside of our reach; the photography is stunning and Adam Balazs' moody score is lovely, but both, focusing on a certain emotional distance, only add to the indecipherable nature of the characters' growth.

It's not as frustrating as that might sound. In a way, the whole movie is about how we distance ourselves from the world: Lily hides behind a series of wigs, as if assuming a new role to hide behind every night; Elliot hides behind his camcorder, viewing his life through the emotional safety of the lens; Gray, we soon learn, is running away from problems at home, problems that he equates with a future into which he doesn't want to become forced. Most road movies are about people figuring out where their lives are going, but "El Camino" refuses to lock its characters down like that. Their story here isn't their complete journey, it's just part of it, and that's the point: most people never figure out where they're headed, so why should these three rush to easy solutions just because they're in a movie?

We're tossed a few obligatory locals, including Wes Studi as a friendly mechanic who invites the trio to dinner and Amy Hargreaves as a barfly who invites Gray to bed. They provide the expected colorful interludes, and it's enough to break up the script's drifting nature. But they're not as influential as most road movies would allow them to be - then again, perhaps they are, and we just can't see it with the leads so closed off to us.

"El Camino" would be deadly frustrating - curiously clever but too uninvolving - if not for the strong performances from the three young leads. Watch how they make so much out of so little, all that emotion bubbling to the surface, cautiously withheld, visible just enough for us to be drawn in. It's up to the cast to connect us where the screenplay will not, and all three succeed. The film might be intriguing for its technical, detached decisions, but it's the cast that ultimately keeps us watching.

The DVD

Video & Audio


Lifesize Entertainment sent DVD Talk an advance DVD-R screener and not a final shelf copy of "El Camino." As such, we're unable to provide an accurate rundown of the video and audio; if a retail disc comes our way, we'll update this review accordingly. We can tell you that the film will be presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, with separate 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks. No subtitles are provided.

Extras

Weigel's 2004 short film "Gravity" (17:24; 2.35:1 anamorphic) offers a clever twist on an old premise. It's France, 1944, and an American and German soldier get their parachutes trapped in the treetops; they're left to dangle, and talk, and wait. There are long wordless passages that are quite beautiful, while maintaining a cynicism that keeps it from being just another spin on the set-up.

Six deleted scenes (8:12 total) - labeled "outtakes" here - provide some expanded character business, including expanded bar and dinner scenes and a few moments of lingering quiet. Most effective is a montage of the trio's trip to a county fair; it would've been nice to see this smallish moment in the movie proper.

The film's trailer (1:41) rounds out the set.

Final Thoughts

"El Camino" approaches a hypnotic tone, and that sort of slow-going nature might put off some viewers. But the drama is certainly there, and if you're willing to work with it, you'll be rewarded with some fine character work to go along with all that beautiful scenery. Recommended.

Want to learn more about El Camino? Check out this interview with director Erik Weigel and the film's official web site.

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