It’s a seminal element of the human experience. We grab a few friends, hop into the car that has the least chance of breaking down (but will end up breaking down anyway), and go off in search of that bottle of Dom we buried/that porn tape we accidentally made/Brad Pitt and the nearest cliff.
It’s the road! The appeal of the freedom promised by the very founders of this fine country themselves. Fresh air, endless pavement, and the anticipation of leaving yourself open to new experiences in towns large and small alike.
Will you end up having a fireworks fight in a graveyard? Will you fall in love with the girl behind the counter at Dairy Queen? Will you go skinny dipping as the Summer sun sets in a blaze of oranges, purples and pinks?
Not in these films. In these road trippers, the situations are all a bit different. Buckle up and reset the odometer for 12 Unconventional Road Trip Movies.
The Blues Brothers (1978)
The Pitch: Two blues men get the band back together and go on a mission from God.
The Unconventionality: For one, a bulk of the action takes place off the road – even with the chase scenes and the logistics of traveling to get the band members, the instruments, and to play gigs. For two, it’s a musical (something it also isn’t always thought of as), and it’s rare to see so much music featured in a road trip movie that’s not on the radio.
For three, it may be the only road trip movie where the end goal is to pay someone else’s taxes.
The Pitch: A mustachioed Kazakhstanian comes to America to learn about our culture and to kidnap Pamela Anderson.
The Unconventionality: This follows the exact formula: two friends get into a vehicle with an ultimate destination and get into wacky adventures along the way. However, instead of allowing the stops along the way to shape them, the two friends have ulterior motives of shaping the interactions they have.
Instead of learning about the people they meet, they want to mock, deride, and force them to watch two grown, naked men wrestle each other.
The Pitch: A traveling businessman is tormented by the vehicular version of Jaws.
The Unconventionality: There’s far more road here than most road movies. In fact, there are really only three stops, and instead of the light comedy and interpersonal drama that normally comes from hitting the town cafe, the only thing that lives in Spielberg’s version is fear. Why is the truck driver torturing the man? It’s unclear.
However, instead of wanting to load up the car with your friends, this flick makes you want to stay off the highways permanently.
Get On the Bus (1996)
The Pitch: A group of men hop on board for a trek from LA to DC and the Million Man March.
The Unconventionality: There’s probably no more racially incendiary road trip movie. Spike Lee yet again deftly navigates the differences and cultural similarities within the confines of the vehicle.
It’s a long journey, and it’s the journey itself that changes the men (which isn’t unconventional), but the subject matter being dealt with is of incredible importance, especially coming so soon after the Million Man March.
Harry and Tonto (1974)
The Pitch: An old man and a cat pull a Kerouac and win an Oscar.
The Unconventionality: I might have fallen asleep during my film history class, but I don’t remember another film that 1) involved a cat as the main road trip companion and 2) was this prestigious.
In a truly poignant movie (for which Art Carney won a Best Actor Award over Hoffman, Nicholson and Pacino), a building being condemned and elderly restlessness is catalyst enough to send the old codger to meet his youngest son for the first time without tying a bunch of balloons to his house.
The Hitchhiker (1953)
The Pitch: Two men pick up a hitchhiker that turns out to be a serial killer. Woops.
The Unconventionality: Besides being the first film noir directed by a woman (and deserving a spotlight in this month of Noir-vember), the movie exists before the genre of the Road Trip was really made popular so it plays by basically none of the rules.
It has two men on a fishing trip, another who joins them, and a lot of traveling time, but beyond that, it’s a gripping tension-builder that happens to be set in the claustrophobia of a car (instead of in the trunk, like many other noir flicks).
The Pitch: A professor and his underage step-daughter go from motel to motel in order to get some statutory satisfaction.
The Unconventionality: In earnest, only about half of the film is a Road Trip Movie, but it’s an important section that finds the relationship of Humbert and Lolita finally coming to illegal fruition.
Few experiences on the road are meant to lead to finally getting in the pants of your teenage step-daughter, but that’s exactly the result of her mother’s death (not surprisingly, a victim of a car accident).
Natural Born Killers (1994)
The Pitch: A pair of hopeless romantics go on a killing spree, and a country falls in love.
The Unconventionality: Oh, Mickey and Mallory. Is there anything conventional about those two lovable scamps? Instead of affirming life or “finding yourself” (whatever that means), their road trip involves raping hostages, shooting men that give bad head in the face, and interviews from prison broadcast before the Super Bowl.
Sort of makes that road trip with your buddies seem far less eventful, doesn’t it?
Rain Man (1988)
The Pitch: Two brothers forget that they won’t be able to watch Wopner on the road.
The Unconventionality: There’s a lot that’s conventional here, but the movie just doesn’t jump to mind whenever thinking of Road Trip Movies. The purpose of the trip for Charlie is tw0-fold. To learn the answer to why no one ever told him he had a brother, and to learn the very significance of that answer.
Oddly enough, the road trip element wouldn’t have existed at all here if Raymond wasn’t afraid of flying.
The Road (2009)
The Pitch: Post-Apocalyptic Road Tripping
The Unconventionality: It might be the presence of the cannibals, the roving gangs of bandits, the barren landscape, or the crushing feeling of doom that permeates every second of the father and son’s existence – but really it’s just all the walking. They couldn’t find a car? What kind of road trip movie is this?
The first to use a car breaking down not as a plot point, but as the entire plot, that’s what.
Follow That Bird (1985)
The Pitch: Big Bird wants to go home to Sesame Street, the gang wants to bring him back, and a circus wants to kidnap him.
The Unconventionality: The most notable oddity here is that it’s two road movies in one. Big Bird heads out on his own trek of self-discovery (that leads to an important lesson about how your home is truly defined) while the inhabitants of Sesame Street jump in cars and planes in search of the giant yellow menace.
Each group has different experiences, sings their own songs, and delivers a sweetly Communistic message to your children.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Pitch: A young girl hits her head and has one crazy dream.
The Unconventionality: For the genre, we could feature The Lord of the Rings and a few others, but The Wizard of Oz is such a timeless example that never gets its due for its road trip elements. Dorothy walks her pretty little ruby slippers down the yellow brick road, through screaming trees (not the band), encounters with travelers she brings along, and through medical-strength poppy fields. Fortunately, when they reach the end of the road, their journey isn’t over, and she has one more trip to take.
Plus, I’m pretty sure she was only in Oz to avoid being drafted for WWII.
What are some of your favorite road trip movies?
Editor’s Note: This list was lovingly compiled with help from the genius of Kevin Carr, Robin Ruinsky, and Josh Radde.