Right off the bat, a new movie written and directed by Sally Potter does not take it easy on the viewer. It opens with plain white-on-black titles followed by the sight of Javier Bardem in a bed, in a barely furnished apartment. He lies alone, staring at the ceiling, grunting and mumbling. His guttural utterances are sometimes more frightening than pitiful.
What is ailing this man? It’s never revealed. Later in the movie, when Bardem’s character Leo has been examined by a doctor after a fall, the practitioner tells Leo’s daughter (Elle Fanning; her character’s name is not shared until almost the very end of the movie, but is done pointedly) that the resulting cut is not serious. But he then expresses concern for Leo’s “underlying condition.” Whatever it is, it is making life impossible both for him and his daughter, whose devotion seems to know no bounds.
“The Roads Not Taken” shows a day in the life of this Leo — and of two others. The incapacitated Leo who’s exiled himself in a tatty Brooklyn flat is tormented by visions of his other potential lives. In one, he lives in Mexico with his first love, Dolores. In another, he lives on a Greek island where he smokes, drinks, writes a bit and flirts with women a third of his age.
The three alternate lives have one unifying feature: They all look like a form of hell on earth. Potter’s film preaches a variant of the “you can’t stop what’s coming” ethos articulated in “No Country for Old Men” (a Coen brothers’ movie for which Bardem won an Oscar), and it insists that whatever joys are in living, its miseries are heartbreaking and potent.
The film also evokes the poet Philip Larkin’s line, “Man hands on misery to man,” particularly with respect to Leo’s relationship with his daughter. Leo’s a writer, and she aspires to be one. “You sacrificed your family for a book?” a young woman on the Greek island asks Leo, incredulous. In the New York setting, Fanning’s character loses a potential job while taking care of her father.
Potter delivers her vision here in a form that’s perhaps too raw, too undistilled. There’s precious little lightness negotiating with the dark. Her lack of compromise is, as always, admirable — as is her way with actors. Laura Linney and Salma Hayek, among other cast members, do great work. But this is a movie one is apt to recommend with a caveat of “if you’re up for it.”
The Roads Not Taken
Rated R for language and themes. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.