SXSW 2013 Review: ‘Scenic Route’ Finds Power in Chemistry

By  · Published on March 15th, 2013

On paper, Scenic Route sounds like a student film: two buddies on a road trip get stranded in the middle of nowhere, and have to come to terms with their differences, while facing the possibility of death. It’s not tied to a specific location, there are only two characters, for the most part, and it’s basically a lot of talking. In the hands of any other actors, it might have slipped easily into that student film territory. But who would have ever known that Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler would have such great chemistry together?

The iconic image from the film that will be burned into your brain, which was featured in the images for the film peppered around SXSW (and seen above), is Duhamel, sitting with a filthy, bloody face, a newly-acquired mohawk, and a stunned expression on his face. It’s a face you see at the beginning of the film as well, before flashing back to a scrubbed clean Duhamel with a full head of hair, asleep against the window of a pickup truck winding through Death Valley.

Cut to the basic setup: Carter (Fogler) has taken his best friend Mitchell (Duhamel) on a “scenic route” road trip so they can spend some quality time together. But when Duhamel seems intent on sleeping the entire trip, Carter fakes a breakdown, stranding them in the middle of nowhere on a desolate road. Mitchell, hobbled by a cast on his ankle and relegated to crutches, doesn’t respond well to this and reacts like a panicked animal.

When he climbs a nearby hill in hopes of catching a better cell signal, Fogler reluctantly follows him, only to have them both come tumbling down when they spot an oncoming car. When the driver offers to take them both into town, Carter sheepishly admits that he faked the mechanic issues, which enrages Mitchell. This blossoms into an full-blown argument between the two of them, where Carter accuses Mitchell of checking out of life by marrying a controlling woman, and Mitchell lashes out Carter and his failed life as a writer.

However, things really take a turn when the truck actually does break down. With only a few chips of ice and a handful of jelly beans, the two of them have to see if their lives and their friendship will survive this situation. And that’s just the opening of the film. What remains is a gripping experience that smacks of realism and desperation. It feels like two parts The Hitcher and one part Buried, and between the two of them, what plays out onscreen is equally as thrilling (nay, better then) any of the Transformers films.

While Josh Duhamel is fairly appealing in everything he does, thanks to his good looks and strong jawline, the roles he has played have always been fairly cookie cutter: the guy in a romantic comedy, a soldier fighting against overwhelming odds, and so on. But this film marks the first time he has really had to stretch his acting legs to great lengths, and he does so with flying colors.

Equally as surprising was the dramatic turn from Dan Fogler in what is probably his most dramatic role yet. He’s known for his over-the-top antics in most of the films he has played, and seems to be the heir apparent to the spirit of John Belushi. But, he is capable of playing up the drama when he needs to, which you can actually see at times in Balls of Fury. And here is where I publically admit that I really enjoyed that movie.

But here, Fogler has dialed the goofy way back, and although it creeps out at times, he and Duhamel both manage to squarely nail the bitter fighting between two lifelong friends in this movie. We’ve seen people hashing it out onscreen before, but this felt more true to life than anything I’ve seen before. I had a friend who died when we were both 22, and we needed to have an experience like this, which we unfortunately never had. Real emotion pours out of both of these actors, and these two characters are laid bare to themselves and each other by the end of the film.

There’s a twist at the end of the film as well, which we won’t spoil for you here, but while I initially felt that it was unnecessary, the possible ramifications of it have kept me thinking about this film long after it was over. This script, by Kyle Killen, and direction from brothers Kevin and Michael Goetz have resulted in a very powerful film that you should see with your best friend. Then take a road trip together. You both might need it.

The Upside: When the directors told Duhamel (who is also one of the producers) that he needed to shave his head into a Mohawk, he offered to do it immediately.

The Downside: While the set was apparently blazing hot, and the script references this many times, the overcast skies don’t help us sweat it out in our seats.

On the Side: Fogler has been very popular on and off Broadway, winning a Tony for his role in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2005. Oh, and he’s portraying comedian Sam Kinison in an upcoming HBO bio pic.