In The Roads Not Taken, seasoned filmmaker Sally Potter shows us an uneventful and often nonsensical day in the life of dementia sufferer Leo (Javier Bardem), as his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning) takes him to the dentist and the optometrist. Leo frequently loses himself in various memories, as he relives his past with first love Dolores (Salma Hayek) and ex-wife Rita (Laura Linney), as well as some time he spent writing alone in Greece.
Potter’s latest work is perhaps her most personal yet, dedicated to her brother Nic, who suffered from a form of dementia himself, but the film sadly misses the mark both thematically and narratively, delivered with little panache and a confused sense of ambiguity.
One of the biggest issues here is in the way that those around Leo treat him; his illness is neither manageable nor his own fault, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise on several occasions. Medical professionals seemingly have little patience for him, and his ex-wife and friend, Rita, seems to have made her peace with the fact that he’s no longer the man she once knew. Molly mostly seems to love and care for her father, but even she seemingly renders him a nuisance at times, and when so few characters appear to have empathy for the man, it’s hard for an audience to feel any, either.
Where The Roads Not Taken completely loses its focus is in the apparent hallucinogenic experiences that Leo has throughout, all of which are both cliché-driven and bizarre, wherein Potter tries to inject some ambiguity into a work that feels all too obvious. The film’s message is abundantly clear, both from within the narrative and from the title itself, so Potter’s solution for this appears to be multiple out-of-place surrealist imagery designed to do little more than impress, none of which are as clever or profound as she would like them to be.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that the film lacks any strengths; it’s stacked with strong performances from talented actors, all doing what they can to elevate the messy material. Bardem is more than convincing in the central role, while Fanning is a natural presence as always, and Linney and Hayek do excellent work with what little they have, but none are able to mask a work that is both empty in its compassion and lacking in its execution. It is a slow and arduous journey to a disappointing destination, devoid of any real heart or soul, both of which are imperative for a story like this to work.
The Roads Not Taken is a film that will undoubtedly resonate with those who have had similar experiences, but will likely fail to captivate an audience looking for anything more than personal reflection; a deeply personal work with nothing meaningful to say about its subject.
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