There are plenty of road trip films that fill us with travel dread. Some of the mire and darkness our favourite protagonists have endured make us just want to stay safely at home, away from thieving bandits, heartbreakers and eerily barren badlands that broken down cars leave us abandoned in. And then there are the others: the films that make us want to don the double denim (s/o to Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise) and pill-pop our way across the Mojave desert (like Hunter S. Thompson).
Stories of discovery, heroism, crime, coming-of-age and coming-up have long coloured cinema and freed us from the dull and suffocating daily drama and tired cinematic backdrop of LA or New York City. When free spirits join forces and take turns switching gear to pelt through the unknown bends of life, they remind us of the recklessness and abandon we felt that one hot summer, speeding along dusty tracks with the windows down and the radio blaring.
Road movies jump start the rogue recesses of our imagination into fantasising a life that is glamorous, perilous and altogether removed from the banal. In celebration of Bonnie and Clyde’s 50th anniversary this month, peruse this list at your leisure and find inspiration to fill up the tank and hit the road with your chosen partner in crime. (NB: never watch On The Road. Just read the book).
It Happened One Night (1934) dir Frank Capra
What’s a road trip to remember without some hitchhiking? Though our parents warned us never to do it, they also warned us not to do a bunch of other things that turned out to be quite fun. If this screwball comedy is anything to go by, you’ll strike nothing but gold riding in cars with strangers (so long as you do it in numbers and under the direction of It’s A Wonderful Life’s creator).
Claudette Colbert plays a disillusioned young socialite lost without daddy’s credit card, showing Clark Gable how travelling on a shoestring is really done. Just remember that in real life no ride is free and your ghosts will catch up with you, probably at the Greyhound terminal that has no bathroom. If you must travel by bus, comfort yourself with the belief that a handsome stranger might be the next passenger aboard your grisly bus.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) dir Arthur Penn
Immortalised throughout pop culture by Brigitte Bardot/Serge Gainsbourg, Beyoncé/Jay Z and most recently Chloe Green/Jeremy Meeks, the real-life tale of a feisty girl and a felon is a classic throughout the ages and was most famously resurrected on screen by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty (both actors who creep me out but in this casting, live up to their unhinged characteristics).
Their opposite side of the tracks backgrounds result in a lot of aired dirty laundry, guns blazing and eventually a deeply entertaining and salacious crescendo. Like Thelma, Louise, all star-crossed lovers across history and swaggering Hunter S in Fear and Loathing, they never really meant to hurt anyone…Did they?
Kings of the Road (1976) dir Wim Wenders
This film came eight years before the wonder of Paris, Texas but was the third of Wenders’ elevating “Road Movie Trilogy”. It’s also the most poetic in an otherwise bleak line-up of meandering and thwarted hope. A wandering West German projectionist mechanic works tirelessly at theatres along the East border.
Wenders’ fascination with theatrics and misfits has its foundations in this film – a decade later Wings of Desire follows a lonely trapeze artist and in 2011 the auteur charted the avant-garde choreography of Pina Bausch. Shot on 35mm, it’s dazzling and the characters and places ring true of the nowhereness that long drives can embody.
Stalker (1979) dir Andrei Tarkovsky
OK so this is as enlightening as it is terrifying, but you’ve got to admit that the danger element of being deserted by your own choosing is one of life’s simplest thrills. Whether your quest is to just hang out in nature or to embark on a full-on existential meltdown in private (both depicted in this creepy and beautiful thriller with sublime precision), very little compares to the weight of Russian science fiction in helping you realise the importance of heading out to the wilderness and moving through your own psyche in silence.
It’s based loosely on Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic and sees the protagonists weaving between strange places in search of the mysterious ‘Zone.’ Like the characters in Stalker, you’re probably best off hiring a guide, but the Instagramming en route to your psychological destination will be priceless if you just go with it.
Thelma and Louise (1991) dir Ridley Scott
Such was the impact of this film that when I recently encountered Susan Sarandon recently IRL I choked on my own breath fighting back the desire to tell her how important her portrayal of being a strong, sassy, vulnerable, unapologetic female, lover and best friend was to me and millions of others. This film ahinalited all that had come before with its reassertion of the sexual gaze, and finally brought two complex and empowered female leads – capable of driving themselves in and out of their own trouble – into the spotlight.
These deadly women marked a shift in the modernisation of the femme fatale trope, veering onto screens in a way that surely must’ve prompted a thousand bored housewives into packing their trunk, grabbing their best friend and necking tequila at the first pitstop en route to Mexico.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) dir Stephan Elliott
In the ’90s, Australian cinema did a pretty amazing job putting out films like this and Muriel’s Wedding that truly grasped the suffocating tendencies of suburban life. They did it in a particularly introspective, fun-poking fashion, dripping with dry wit and characters desperate to escape one stifling society only to find themselves clashing up against another.
“Priscilla” is the lilac bus driven by three fierce queens from Sydney to desert resort Alice Springs, where they’re contracted to hold a drag residency. The film is a reminder that no long trip will be without its obstacles and drama, but with the right attitude and the right wardrobe you’re only set for success.
Crossroads (2002) dir Tamra Davis
Karaoke, bad boys and Britney in her heyday: what’s not to love? I hold this film unashamedly close to my heart and often watch it when hungover and in need of some casual road trip inspo. The acting is super melodramatic and it features a dubiously gleaned-over rape plot, but nothing will get you revved up like the notion of a wild open-top adventure with some old friends and a total babe fawning over you in between sing-alongs in motel dive bars.
It reminds us of being perpetually naive and overexcitable about the wide open road ahead, and the constant desire for badboys who, disappointingly, turn out to be quite nice. Amongst its hilarious moments is the fact that the girls can only travel if a man will drive them, and the way he pimps them out to fix his wagon. Luminous in its message of how far feminism has come since 2002 and how Britney was next level hot.