Synopsis: Stacy Keach is Pat Quid, a lone trucker who plays games to keep his sanity on long hauls through the desolate Outback. Jamie Lee Curtis is a free-spirited hitchhiker looking for excitement with a game of her own. And somewhere up ahead is a maniac in a van whose game may be butchering young women along the highway. But when the killer decides to raise the stakes, Quid’s game becomes personal…and the rules of this road are about to take some very deadly turns.
Director Richard Franklin (Psycho II, Link) packs plenty of Hitchcock-like twists and suspense into this sly shocker that was nominated for four Australian Film Institute Awards and remains one of the most surprising thrillers of the ’80s.
eyelights: Stacy Keach. Jamie Lee Curtis. the pace. the mood.
eyesores: the ending.
“I think in order to play the game properly we have to know what he thinks of women.”
‘Roadgames’ is a psychological thriller by Richard Franklin, of ‘Patrick‘ and ‘Psycho II‘ fame. While making ‘Patrick’, Franklin gave writer Everett De Roche a copy of the screenplay to Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ as an example. De Roche liked it so much that he suggested doing a similar story, but on the road.
Franklin agreed and, together, they constructed ‘Roadgames’. Franklin had worked with Hitch and was incredibly influenced by his work, as evidenced in ‘Patrick’, and he did the same with ‘Roadgames’ – albeit in a more subtle ways. His work on this film is credited for landing him the daunting task of following-up ‘Psycho’.
There’s not much to the picture, plot-wise. It consists of Quid, an American truck-driver hitting the road to make an urgent meat delivery, crossing paths with a strange character (played by none other than Grant Page) time and time again as he makes his way down the deserted Australian roadways. His curiosity piqued, he keeps watch.
Little does he know that the man he’s looking out for is a serial killer.
Franklin and De Roche wrote Quid with Sean Connery in mind. They couldn’t afford him, of course, so they got Stacy Keach. Frankly, I think that they couldn’t have done better: Keach was perfect. He was able to draw us into Quid’s slowly building obsession quite effortlessly. He sort of made me think of an older Johnny Depp.
Quid was on his own for most of the picture, which was risky business – one man shows don’t always work. But he was accompanied by his pet dingo, to whom he talks the whole way through, providing us access to his thoughts and delusions. It was a clever device because it was also a constant reminder of a driver’s loneliness on the road.
Thankfully, Franklin and De Roche added human interactions to the story:
- Pamela (or “Hitch”): Played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Pamela is a young woman thumbing her way across the land, whom Quid eventually gives a ride to. She’s mysterious but intelligent, and Curtis plays her absolutely perfectly. She doesn’t have a big part to play, but her presence is felt throughout, from the moment she’s on screen.
- Smith or Jones: The strange man in the green van keeps showing up, either when Quid catches up to him, or when he catches up to Quid. It’s a peculiar dance and you can see that they’re curious about each other. This adds a dramatic tension not unlike the one in ‘Duel‘, except that there isn’t as clear a threat here.
Quid also crosses paths with a few other travelers long the way:
- A family presumably going on a holiday, with raucous kids bouncing in the back, faces painted in Kiss make-up. At one point, he’s stopped on the road by Frita, the spouse, who was left behind by her husband. Why he left her behind is unclear, but she serves to show us how suspicious Quid might appear to outsiders.
- A sneezy biker, all dressed in red leather and helmet. Played by Robert Thompson (who played Patrick himself), he serves to provide humour and mystery, as we don’t know who he is and what his purpose is. As well, the simple fact that he’s dressed in red and that he sneezes makes him more noticeable, makes him stand out.
- A man driving around with his boat hitched to the back of his car. He primarily serves the purpose of bringing humour and visceral energy to the piece, in that he gets into all sorts of mishaps along the way – especially when he decides to annoy Quid, after wrongfully blaming him for his shattered windshield. Then it gets a bit hairy. And exciting.
- A pair of men driving around in a station wagon filled with footballs, soccer balls and the like. Their bumper also boasted a security system, something that would come into play at a later date when Quid would cross paths with them again at a road stop. I wish I knew the story behind all those balls. Were they salesmen? Or clowns?
What’s terrific is that we know that Smith or Jones is a killer (this is established right from the start), but Quid doesn’t – he’s only guessing, putting the pieces together. We know that the man is dangerous, but Quid is merely curious at first, prompted by the man’s unusual behaviour. He doesn’t know what he’s in for. We do, and it creates tension.
I love that ‘Roadgames’ takes its sweet time building up to its climax, dragging us on the road with Quid and into his mental downward spiral, spurred by fatigue and isolation. I love the character of Quid, because he’s imperfect, but well-meaning. We can believe most of what he does because it’s in character; it makes sense contextually.
There are a few weak points along the way, though. For instance, the scene at the truck stop when Quid is shouting over the phone to the police could have been done differently. At least it establishes that he tried to get them involved but he seems hapless and sloppy here. This may be due to fatigue, but it’s not properly established.
Then there is the ending, which lacks a certain… something. After a whole movie on the road with Quid, leading us to this dramatic head to head between Quid and the killer, you’d half-expect the ending to deliver in a major way. It doesn’t: it sort of peters out. But, in all fairness, it’s not the one that Franklin had planned to make.
For one, the finale was supposed to be more elaborate, re-introducing some of the many road characters and adding them to the conflict. Alas, the production was pressured to wrap up so they had to trim the ending. You can tell because they all pop out of nowhere, as though they were there all along. It’s awkward.
I always wondered about that.
Also, there’s the final discovery in the truck, which was tacked on at the producers’ request to give audiences a final shock – something that Franklin hated. I didn’t know either of these things going in, but you can feel that something’s off. It’s just not satisfying as it should be, and that last reveal is stupid and cheaply done.
But, all in all, ‘Roadgames’ was a rather enjoyable piece. It’s imperfect, but, as far as low-budget thrillers go, it’s pretty good. I liked it more this time than the first go round, now that my expectations were adjusted (it was marketed as a slasher in North America – which it’s not). I suspect that this one will grow on me the more I watch it.
Date of viewing: April 19, 2014