Back Roads. 2018. Directed by Alex Pettyfer. Screenplay by Tawni O’Dell, based on her novel of the same.
Starring Alex Pettyfer, Jennifer Morrison, Juliette Lewis, Nicola Peltz, Robert Longstreet, Chiara Aurelia, & Hala Finley.
Upturn Productions/Infinity Media
Not Rated. 101 minutes.
Disclaimer: The following article may contain spoilers
Father Gore’s never been struck much by Alex Pettyfer, only due to the films he’s been in as a whole. Acting talent isn’t his problem. His turn in Magic Mike was solid for the time he’s on screen. The Strange Ones recently showed his abilities as a powerful lead actor with subtle qualities, and it’s this performance that leans towards the territory into which he wades with his directorial debut, Back Roads.
Pettyfer’s first time as director offers a bleak and emotional adaptation of Tawni O’Dell’s novel of the same name. O’Dell wrote the screenplay, keeping hold of all its source material’s themes, from how economically ravaged towns operate to the abusive cycles damaged people and families fall into like a perpetually turning wheel.
The most important theme Pettyfer and O’Dell focus on is the strain toxic masculinity and repressed emotions alike put on the lives of people in small towns— where all the progressive ideals of the cities haven’t quite seeped into the local psyche, where a man isn’t a man if he doesn’t like to hunt and a woman’s not a lady if she likes to, where vulnerable people lean on one another in ways most others could never understand.
O’Dell’s novel deals with life in rural coal country amongst the backwoods of Pennsylvania and a family marred by violence and alcoholism, alongside the brutal weight of harsh masculinity. Pettyfer plays Harley Altmyer, whose mother Bonnie (played by Juliette Lewis) is in prison for killing his abusive father. This leaves the young man shouldering the weight of the family and caring for his three sisters: sexually promiscuous teenager Amber (Nicola Peltz), the troubled early adolescent Misty (Chiara Aurelia), and his littlest sister, the inquisitive Jody (Hala Finley).
The biggest theme at play throughout Back Roads is repression— whether it’s sexuality, emotions, or the overall growth of an individual. At the centre of the repressive storm is Harley. He’s forced to be a parent to Amber, worrying about who she’s having sex with while he has to all but put his own love life entirely on hold. He’s got to deal with worrisome emotional issues when it’s suggested Misty killed a kitten once, and to do so he must ignore his own emotional problems. There’s a stillness about Harley throughout the majority of the film, but it doesn’t feel like calm.
Alcoholism is prevalent in subtle ways. First of all, there’s rarely a time when Harley doesn’t have a bottle of beer in his hand when not at work. The most telling moment speaking to how many small towns are riddled with toxic attitudes towards alcohol is when Harley’s asked if he wants some booze. When he discovers he’s being offered beer, he quips that beer isn’t alcohol. In small towns, beer’s not considered booze, it’s more like water, another form of sustenance to keep you alive. Alcoholism is, somehow, the least of Harley’s worries.
“There’s nothing wrong with a guy liking art”
“And there’s nothing wrong with a girl liking to hunt”
The root of Harley’s desperate masculinity crisis begins at home. He mentions in one scene he’s done “all the things” he’s “supposed to do.” This relates to how he saw his father’s life. Despite his dad supposedly being abusive, Harley seems to feel bad for him. He’s been forced into being ‘man of the house’ and by default comes to understand his father. His emotions are entirely confused. He equates sex with love— one intense moment sees Harley catch Amber fucking a guy on the couch, so he fires a gun off to scare the dude away, then hauls the couch onto the lawn and burns it. He’s so ingrained in this idea of sex = love, plus his own sexual repression, he has to cleanse the object marked by ‘unclean’ sexuality with fire. This is also a sign of disturbing things to come.
Not only is Harley unsuccessful in his love life, he has to deal with expectations of masculinity. It isn’t only the fact his sisters rely on him in the absence of their mother and father. He’s considered weird because he doesn’t subscribe to the tenets of so-called masculinity. He gets a recipe to make something new for dinner and Amber calls him “a fag“— paradoxical, as he’s forced to act as caregiver while simultaneously being emasculated for trying to be better with his duties at home.
The biggest problem is once the repressive state in him breaks. Harley gets involved with a married woman named Callie Mercer (Jennifer Morrison), and after the first time they have sex he’s hooked. Because his only ideas about masculinity and sex are informed by an abusive home life, he gets aggressive. He becomes possessive with Callie, all but forcing her to fuck him after forcefully kissing her out in front of her house. Things only get more difficult after Harley continues confusing sex with love, culminating in tragic events that tear his family apart irreparably.
“He can run, catch a ball… kill, have intercourse…”
Father Gore doesn’t want to ruin the ending, in spite of previous spoilers. Suffice to say, Harley and his sisters have lived under a repressive cloud that’s gradually revealed until unsettling truths about the Altmyer family come to light. Back Roads articulates the many ways in which toxic masculinity harms both men and women, likewise digging deep into how family’s not always family— sometimes it’s a pack of wolves and only the toughest endure, though even then maybe not in one piece.
Pettyfer’s announced himself as a proper talent with this directorial debut. His performance is so subdued at times he genuinely does disappear into the character. He tells a story that feels like a tragedy transplanted from Ancient Greece to the northeastern, Mid-Atlantic United States, doing so with an emotional depth some older directors can’t manage.
This is an important piece of cinema, particularly in 2018 as many men are only now just waking up to the brutality of masculinity, and how that affects them, as well as the people of other genders in their lives. While much of the story and its beats feel familiar, it’s told with sophistication, and where lesser films might fall into sensationalism of all sorts, Pettyfer’s Back Roads opts to stay grounded, offering an intense and emotionally mature perspective on masculinity, family dysfunction, and the repressive attitudes which all too often prevail in small towns.