Film

Film Review: The Surprising Humanity of Dashcam Documentary The Road Movie

It was explained to me years ago that some astronomically high percentage of cars in Russia have dashcams on them, facing out onto the road ahead. The reason for this has something to do with cutting down on false insurance claims and lawsuits with regards to accidents. I’ve literally seen Russian dashcam footage of people throwing themselves in front of a non-moving car to claim they were hit; I’m guessing those cases didn’t go too well for the “victims.”

A cursory search of YouTube will find you some of the most incredible footage of accidents, near misses, mishaps of nature and of the human-made variety. I’ve seen film of a meteor streaking across the sky, cows on the road getting hit by cars, and drunk maniacs crawling onto the hood of a car, riding it for blocks before simply oozing off onto the ground.

Image courtesy of Variety

From director Dmitrii Kalashnikov comes The Road Movie, a 70-minute adventure in voyeurism. It’s comprised entirely of Russian dashcam footage, some of which is quite spectacular, while the rest is meant to capture more mundane and familiar human behavior.  Sometimes that’s uniquely Russian, other times it shows that we all react similarly to the same strange occurrences. And over the course of the movie, we get a clear sense of what life is like in Russia today—from a nice driving tour that reveals the Kremlin as the final destination, to a seemingly harmless honking incident that escalates into a dozen very scary paramilitary types leaping out of van and right at the car with the dashcam.

We see the use of baseball bats, axes, guns and other weapons during fits of road rage, and we have the uniquely terrifying experience of driving through a raging forrest fire, during which those in the car are unable to breathe and feel the heat of the flame through the car before emerging safely. What’s fascinating about all of these sequences is that we don’t always know how the drama ends. If we see the beginnings of a truck tipping over on an icy road, we likely won’t see the end result once it goes out of frame. Our perspective is limited, but that almost makes The Road Movie all the more interesting and moving. When we race down a highway somewhere, how often do we actually consider the lives of the people driving by going in the opposite direction?

As much as the stereotypical Russian is inherently tough or angry, The Road Movie reveals a great deal of compassion as well, as motorists stop to help after especially horrific accidents. I’m sure some of the wrecks we see resulted in death (the film is blessedly blood free), and there’s a free-floating sadness that moves through the film during those moments.

We also get to hear the audio from inside the cars, offerings some pointed and sometimes hilarious commentary to the images. One especially awful moment involves hearing the moans of pain of driver and passenger after an especially nasty accident involving the car with the dashcam. There are a small number of such scenes, which often result in the camera being thrown from the car; the resulting shot is often unexpectedly beautiful.

The Road Movie is surreal, funny, and occasionally a bit of a nightmare to watch unfold. But every second of it is highly watchable and captivating, because the unpredictable, uncontrollable nature of real life is infinitely more interesting than anything else in the world. More than anything, I can’t wait to see if director Kalashnikov continues down this found-footage path or moves in different directions.

The film opens today at AMC River East 21, as well as the AMC South Barrington 30.

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