REVIEW: The Roads Not Taken [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 85 minutes
    Release Date: May 1st, 2020 (UK)
    Studio: Bleecker Street Media
    Director(s): Sally Potter
    Writer(s): Sally Potter

And what are you doing to make things better?

Leo (Javier Bardem) is barely coherent thanks to a degenerative disability that demands constant care despite his wishes to remain alone under a façade of self-sufficiency within an apartment whose window is directly beside a public transit train. He alternates between Spanish and English without reason when not grunting unfavorably to let whoever is nearby know he doesn’t want to do what they’re asking of him. The one person he allows to lead him where he needs to go is his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning). And even though she gets as frustrated as everyone else, she’ll never let it stop her from treating him like a human being who is physically present and should be acknowledged regardless of whether he can comprehend what’s happening around him.

Writer/director Sally Potter relays these truths straightaway by creating a worst-case scenario day for her two leads in The Roads Not Taken. Leo lies in bed as though he can’t hear his nurse Xenia (Branka Katic) ringing the bell or the ringing of his phone. He barely registers when she and his daughter enters to lean over his bed and tell him it’s time to get up. Molly’s arrival is for a personal mission as Leo’s companion while visiting the dentist and optometrist. She knows it’ll be a trying experience (especially since she hasn’t briefed either doctor about the difficulty of their new patient’s situation), but hopes everything will get done before a work meeting scheduled to discuss a new article she’s been researching. It doesn’t.

The reason stems from more than simply Leo’s condition. While that’s its own struggle considering his refusal to go outside, use the bathroom when asked, and verbally communicate his desires, it’s merely a superficial issue when compared to his psychological state of fractured identity. Potter shifts back and forth through three different versions of the character along with his mind. Sometimes he’s with Molly in America. Sometimes he’s with Dolores (Salma Hayek) in Mexico. And sometimes he’s on his own in Greece. What appears to be a slippery slope through time (the present, past, and distant past), however, reveals itself as one through dimensions instead. Leo’s graying hair is noticeable in each variation as well as certain aspects that bleed into the others despite manifesting very differently.

What we discover is that all three are the “present.” We assume the one with Molly is “real” because its events trigger the others, but there is a real threat that the others may prevail over it in the end. Why? Because he’s clear-headed in Mexico and Greece—still haunted, but lucid just the same. They are the forks in the road that fractured who he was at that time into truth and regret. One sees him staying with his first love (Dolores) and the other abandoning his wife (Laura Linney‘s Rita) and daughter (Molly) to focus on his novel. The question remains, however, about when those fractures occurred. How far down the road did Leo chase Dolores? And how long did he leave his young family behind?

There’s a third question too, though. Which choice does he regret most? Because let’s face it—his standard of living as a shell of a human being who’s completely reliant on Molly’s kindness isn’t the life one dreams about. To move beyond the current screen, it recalls the arduous and painful life Bardem’s character from a previous film (The Sea Inside) sought to end with euthanasia. Does he therefore regret leaving Dolores and/or his book behind to saddle these responsibilities upon his daughter? Maybe. While we can’t know where our own alternate paths would have led in hindsight, Potter has in effect given Leo the power to witness his. He’s now living each choice simultaneously, his mind jumbling the details en route to their equally heart-breaking revelations.

You get the sense that he can snap his fingers and stay in either of the three. If not for Molly’s three-dimensionality away from Leo, we might believe it too. But therein lies the rub. Because of what we learn about her character (Dolores and Milena Tscharntke‘s Anni are little more than catalysts for other split journeys rather than autonomous women by comparison), we know her reality is the one we’ll end in. That doesn’t mean there won’t be more surprises yet to come considering Molly finds herself at a crossroads between career and family much like her father did. Traveling to and fro in Leo’s mind conjures its own too as we learn about the selfishness and guilt ravaging each version of himself. He’s always losing something.

Our interest is therefore kept by the stunning wealth of melancholic beauty behind every decision made. Even though we know pretty much how each thread will turn out (those bleeding details present in multiple realities aren’t too hard to parse), how they impact him on an emotional level can prove quite profound. And the choices he’s forced to make aren’t unfamiliar—we live them everyday. They’re the compromises made so that love can endure. They’re the memories of what we enjoyed being enough to make the pain of that which we lost worth it. We constantly draw lines between personal and public spheres because we that separation to survive. It’s up to us whether we can live with sacrificing one for the other and which is which.

Bardem is very good in his three-pronged role—always hurting and lamenting his present. In Mexico it manifests as anger and embarrassment. In Greece it arrives as isolation and yearning. And in America it’s the inability to be the man he once was despite a daughter who never lets him feel as though he isn’t. On that note, Fanning is quite often the stronger performance since she’s living each of his tug-of-wars in a single dimension. While Leo can pretend without consequence (his choice has already been made in each “life”), Molly is in it right now. This is her moment to be disappointed, enraged, and apologetic. This is her moment to cry tears of joy and tears of sadness. It’s time for her to pick her regret.

[1] Javier Bardem (left) as ‘Leo’ and Laura Linney (right) as ‘Rita’ in director Sally Potter’s THE ROADS NOT TAKEN, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Jeong Park / Bleecker Street
[2] Javier Bardem stars as Leo and Elle Fanning as his daughter Molly in Sally Potter’s THE ROADS NOT TAKEN, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Courtesy of Bleecker Street
[3] Salma Hayek (left) as ‘Dolores’ and Javier Bardem (right) as ‘Leo’ in director Sally Potter’s THE ROADS NOT TAKEN, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Bleecker Street

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