As we gaze out its front windshield, a car drives down a local road, going at speeds a bit faster than appear safe. Cruising along, two male passengers are heard discussing drinking, and one quickly wonders if perhaps these individuals are somewhat less than sober, especially as their vehicle wends its away around the road’s curves. Then, a sharp turn materializes and the car doesn’t bank left hard enough, leading it to hit the barrier and plummet into the river below, where it soon begins to coast downstream.
“Fuck, we’ve arrived,” says the driver.
That insane scene comes midway through The Road Movie, and is emblematic of its alternately absurd and horrifying study of vehicular danger. Comprised solely of real dashboard camera footage from Russian cars (much of it from 2014, if intermittent on-screen time stamps are to be believed), Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s documentary is a uniquely amusing—and harrowing—snapshot of the lunacy that awaits people on modern thoroughfares and back streets. Think Cops by way of Faces of Death by way of your favorite caught-on-film YouTube channel. It’s crowdsourced verité cinema, assembled by Kalashnikov with droll humor and an incisive sense of mankind’s compassion and cruelty, and life’s unbelievable precariousness.
Kalashnikov provides no context for The Road Movie; his film is strictly a collection of captured moments from diverse sources, most of whom are heard but never even seen, as the proceedings’ vantage point is always out the front of a car or truck. Such retail dash-cams remain relatively uncommon in the U.S., and according to one speaker, have only just caught on in Russia (unlike in Europe, where they’re supposedly popular). Certainly, one can imagine the appeal of the devices, given that—as in Kalashnikov’s work—the internet-ready clips they produce provide viewers with the vicarious thrill of being able to see sudden, unexpected calamities and craziness take place in real-time, and from a first-person POV, from the safe confines of one’s own home. They provide an experience akin to slowing down and staring at the aftermath of a tragic crash, all without the guilt of knowing that you’re creating traffic bottlenecks in your wake.
There is, as you might imagine, an undeniably ghoulish element to The Road Movie. In one scene, we see a car smash horrendously into a passing vehicle, all as our vantage-point car slows down right before colliding with the wrecks. Then, the driver of “our” car gets out and surveys the damage, while two stunned women (a mother and daughter) discuss whether or not they see the corpse of an older person in one of the damaged vehicles—and, moreover, whether someone is putting a sheet over the body to indicate that they’re deceased. It’s a moment that invariably makes one scan the frame for the sight they’re discussing (to no avail, mercifully), and then to feel more than a bit bad about doing so, because it turns this stranger’s calamity into something uncomfortably close to entertainment.
There’s nothing “entertaining” about many Road Movie moments, which frequently begin as nondescript shots before exploding, in an instant, in chaos—a deer abruptly materializing in headlights, leading to ruin; a car racing straight into a trio of cows, which spring up after being struck and run off; or two trucks plowing head-on into each other, throwing one driver out of his front windshield and onto the pavement, where he miraculously lands on his feet. A late montage of cars crashing, tumbling, and flipping about can’t help but make one cringe, if not outright recoil from the screen. Yet Kalashnikov doesn’t gawk exploitatively at these horrors; his film moves forward at the sort of methodical pace one wishes more of his scenes’ vehicles would mimic, presenting each successive clip with a matter-of-factness that’s bracing.
There’s a method to this compendium of madness—namely, to deliver an up-close-and-personal view of the oh-so-thin line separating life from death. Without saying a word on the subject, The Road Movie conveys the swift fickleness of fate, and the powerlessness of people—especially on the road, where danger lurks on every barren stretch of highway, and around every hairpin turn—to protect themselves against unseen calamity. It’s an unforgettable, unshakeable reminder that survival, in general and especially behind the wheel, is often something that’s out of our hands.
Lest one think Kalashnikov’s documentary is just a grim reminder about our ever-present mortality, however, The Road Movie complements its more traumatic footage with numerous examples of the surreal ludicrousness of life. Two drivers pull over to get into a fistfight, as a talk-radio host is heard opining “We need more education in our country. We’re a very ignorant country.” A car hits a flying duck, compelling the driver to drolly state, “Oh, there is a duck, we’ll take it,” as his kids ask if he’ll show the injured bird to them. In the light of a vehicle’s high beams, a brown bear gallops down the street. Roofs blow off of houses. A truck runs into electrical wires and consequently knocks out an entire block’s power. A man breaks into a car and steals the dash-cam, which continues recording as he flees the scene and is then caught and accosted by the car’s owner. And two dogs decide to get it on in the middle of traffic. In these and other episodes, the film locates, and celebrates, the random ridiculousness that awaits us every time we pull out of the driveway.
Kalashnikov doesn’t emphasize any single passage, or use juxtapositions to underline any overarching commentary. Rather, he allows The Road Movie’s more mirthful and morose sights to simply coexist side-by-side, just as they do, every day, out on the road. The result is scary, hilarious and often beautiful, as when dash-cam vistas allow us to gaze at the varied landscape of Russia itself: its snowy villages, its mountain-surrounded expressways, and its colored lights-illuminated avenues leading directly to Red Square’s Saint Basil’s Cathedral. It’s a portrait of Russia in all its insanity—equal parts expansive countryside, forest fire-drenched roadways, and hatchet-wielding motorists—that doubles as a universal snapshot of existence as perilous, petrifying and comical.
It is, without question, the greatest driver’s ed movie ever.