One for the Road Review
With its handheld camerawork, opaque business speak and cheap suits, One for the Road may come across as a big screen cousin to The Office, yet its humour and essence are of a different breed. Less macho than their David Mamet or Neil LaBute counterparts, these white collar workers are delusional, self-loathing and struggling with their empty friendships, empty lives and empty marriages. “Look at us, four businessmen, eh?” is the key line, not for the “businessmen” part, but for the “eh?”. The quartet meet on a drink driving rehabilitation course, one not dissimilar to motivational talks complete with role playing and prime source for writer-director Chris Cooke’s bitter satire (even the title has a sardonic ring to it). Their queasy associations grow over their regular visits to the local pub, encounters that leave no question as to how unfulfilling their lives are. Hywel Bennet plays Richard Stevens, a wealthy businessman advertising for a mail order bride. Mark Devenport is Mark, an unlicensed taxi driver existing in a limbo whilst serving his ban. Rupert Procter plays Paul, a character not dissimilar to the one he essayed in Cooke’s earlier short, Shifting Units (which has received regular screenings on Channel Four and makes an appearance on the disc), once the archetypal “Mondeo man”, now struggling with both his work and marriage as he succumbs to alcoholism. And Greg Chisholm is Jimmy, the youngest of the group, less sullied than the others, but as with them struggling to find his place in the world, or at least the Midlands shithole he calls home.
They’re four men with the most misguided of focuses and Cooke has decided that One for the Road should ape their plight. Shot on queasy handheld digital cameras, the film revels in their ugliness, picking up on their pallid flesh tones and the undetermined day or night pub lighting. Like their own alcohol-addled thought processes, the cameras swerve uneasily, lose focus and skip nanoseconds of non-information. The film may leave you expecting a hangover, but that’s exactly the point; we’re with them through every swig and gulped shot, every trip to the toilet and every sudden shift in mood, from short-lived joy to lingering aggression. Indeed, so close up are we to these desperate men that every little tension in their pitiful lives proves utterly compelling.
Of course the success can’t lie solely with Cooke and cinematographer N.G. Smith - though so much would be lost has One for the Road been shot in a more conventional manner - as the performer’s undoubtedly deserve equal plaudits. In keeping with the shooting style, much of the acting is improvisatory as though one of the rehabilitation course role plays had spilled over and infused the picture as a whole. Again this heightens the tension - the unpredictability is live as it were - yet also brings out the emotion. There are numerable laugh out loud moments (Devenport’s in character attempt at a Geordie accent is hilarious) but it’s the darker scenes which capture the imagination. In this respect it is Procter who proves One for the Road’s star player. Admittedly, it’s the meatier role of the four, yet he plays it to perfection, especially the scenes with his wife and children where the mask slips completely and we realise just how empty his life is.
However, the fact that there is nothing doesn’t always play in One for the Road’s favour. The film is almost as directionless as its characters and as such Cooke clearly struggles in trying to wind things up. Huge numbers of ostensibly plotless films end with the death(s) or their protagonist(s) and whilst One for the Road doesn’t go quite so far, there’s a similar drastic thinking at work. That said, it is difficult to see quite where Cooke could go and as such it’s difficult to criticise him too harshly. And even if the odd false note is struck, this remains a fine debut, full of nuance and character even if you wouldn’t wish to reacquaint yourself with them too soon.
Shot on digital cameras, the rough hewn qualities of One for the Road are clearly intentional. Indeed, its ugliness means that the presentation here is easily the equal of its (limited) cinematic equivalent. The 1.77:1 ratio has been rendered and a choice of soundtracks is also available. Shot in stereo, it is this option which is perhaps preferably, although there are no problems to either the DD5.1 or DTS mixes. On all three the queasy sound design comes across perfectly well as does Steve Blackman’s equally uneasy scoring.
One for the Road’s disc is accompanied a welcome amount of extras, all of which justify their inclusion. First is a commentary on the main feature by writer-director Cooke, producer Kate Ogborn and co-producer Helen Solomon which proves to be a superb listen. Cooke is the main speaker here, the other two largely working as prompts to keep him speaking or adding the tiniest of anecdotes. And talk he does on everything from the Nottingham film community and shooting on DV to the influence of seventies’ British sex comedies and their bleak outlook on English life. Indeed, such is the wide range of his discussion that the second commentary, by actors Greg Chisholm, Mark Devenport and Rupert Procter, doesn’t really have much ground to cover. Instead the trio offer up a jokier listen that demonstrates their obvious improvisatory skills (Devenport’s in particular) even if it unlikely to enjoy a second play.
Optional commentaries from Cooke and his producers return for two of his earlier shorts, Map of the Scars and Shifting Units. Both are BFI/Channel Four productions that share the stylistic, improvisatory aspects of One for the Road, indeed Shifting Units is regularly referred to as a “pilot” for the main feature as many scenes and cast members appear in both. That said, it’s brief eight minute running time works in its favour, running through the misery that is Procter’s life in such a way that it strengthens its impact.
As a respite, a third, more light-hearted short is included, this one entitled Why I Hate Parties (But Pretend to Love Them) and directed by Mark Devenport. As with One for the Road alcohol plays a key part in its progression, though the emphasis here is on wry observation humour and, indeed, it proves very funny.
Sadly no deleted footage is included (in his commentary Cooke reckons to there having been nine hours shot in total), though 12 website virals are included which see Procter and Devenport improvise direct to camera on various themes whilst in character. As promotional pieces there are largely inconsequential, though still make for an engaging eight minutes. Also serving to promote the film is the original theatrical trailer which rounds off the extras package.
Unlike the main feature none of the extras come with optional English subtitles.