Every once in a while, you come across a film that you would have a hell of a time explaining and/or describing to others. Such is the case with Jason Banker’s Toad Road which is, by and large, two separate films. One the one side, a dark and dirty look at the hopelessness and pathetic co-dependence of drug abuse in a social group with little else to entertain them. On the other side, an unsettling sane-or-insane skirting of perceived reality against the backdrop of an urban legend surrounding a nearby forest and series of gates leading further into the wilderness.
While these two opposite ends of the film overlap to a degree, the only clear thru-point of the film is the budding romantic relationship between defacto group leader James (James Davidson) and newcomer Sara (Sara Anne Jones). James is an old hat with all the drinking and drugs and partying and all the rest, where Sara is new to the scene and interested in taking several steps down the rabbit hole, as it were. In Sara, James sees a way to stabilize things and maybe escape not only the day-to-day wastes that they’ve all become but to make to escape period. In James, Sara sees a safe guide in an unsafe world but treats him erratically and as she gets more involved with this group, her treatment of James seems manipulative, sociopathic – much the way an addict would treat loved ones. The conflict between Sara’s ‘goals’ and James’ ‘goals’ is an interesting one through the first half of the film and provides some tension away from the potential for injury or worse during the group’s many drug-addled escapades.
We transition from the aimless first part of the film to the darker, more suspenseful second half on a moment of casual mention by James to Sara of the legend of the Toad Road. He tells her about a series of gates in a nearby forest that are said to be the seven gates to hell. Sara, the ever mind-widening person she is becoming, fixates on this and begins doing research on the legend and presses James to go with her on the quest to travel these gates. James finally gives in and they ride their bikes one afternoon to what looks like a safety turnoff on a country road, drop their bikes and wander to the path. Their bike riding scene is one of my favorites in the film. They talk about potential future plans and James speaks sweetly about his desire to move forward, take advantage of a chance to make good on his life and move upward with her at his side. This gives you a sense of hope for these two, a sense that all the pointless time-wasting and carrying on earlier in the film will wash away.
No sooner do they drop the bikes and start the walk that dread begins to take hold and all what we’re shown starts to make less and less sense. Once they reach the third gate, things seem to go haywire and the viewer is forced to try to keep up with what all might be happening or not happening at all. This steep drop from the hopeful to the scary and confusing is handled incredibly well. You aren’t given a lot of concrete information to work with and what little flashes there are to suggest one thing or other could be interpreted a number of ways. From the third gate forward, Toad Road becomes a very unsettling, dark and sad sprint to the finish that left me, for a number of days, trying to piece it all together. Because of the ambiguity of it all, I’d rather leave it to you to draw your own conclusions as the literal or figurative meaning of all that happens in the final third of the film.
What was clear to me throughout the film, though, was the strength by which the two leads, Sara Anne Jones and James Davidson, handle the material. Their chemistry seems airy, effortless and calm and gives the viewer a human tether by which to be dragged forward by the film, even in its confusing moments. Sara Anne Jones, in particular, is understated and graceful and her performance really ties all the loose pieces of the film together. You definitely get the sense that she has something and I for one was definitely looking forward to seeing her do more in the future. Sadly, I learned after watching the film that she passed away of a drug overdose shortly after the film premiered. I do not have any interest in relating her tragedy to the events in the film, nor do I have any interest in trying to relate the film itself to her death after the fact. I think it would be nothing short of ridiculous to spout any kind of analysis to that effect and I find it appropriate to only say that I wish to God she could’ve lived on to do more work in the future because she was clearly something special.
All in all, Toad Road is a tough film and not an easy one at times to watch. For every sweet, human moment like the bike ride, you have a deplorable display of stupidity when the group of friends are partying it up. For every dark and creepy moment in the final third of the film, you have a moment of dread not of the supernatural but of the accidental injury or death or how they might all deal with it. So in many ways it is two films in one, tied together by one screwed up but hopeful romantic relationship and a scary and possibly very real legend. Not easy by any means, Toad Road is a challenging film to enjoy and more challenging to contemplate after the fact. But in those most challenging moments lie unique glimpses of ugly, unvarnished humanity worth the runtime and then some.