There’s a built-in limitation to road movies, especially ones constructed around the lure of inevitable romance, where we know that any pre-climax separation of the main players will only be temporary. The action of these films is rooted in travel itself, in the gauzy blur of passing scenery and picaresque location hopping, meaning that any early pretense of stalling that action or dividing the principals comes off as a hollow feint. The best genre examples invoke it as rarely as possible. Carmo, Hit the Road, a tough but never quite exhilarating attempt from Brazilian director Murilo Pasta, employs this possibility like a cat toy, repeatedly dangling it in front of our faces.
The teasing that the film’s two unlikely traveling companions will come to a fractured end is doubly annoying, as it spends so much time threatening the possibility that we’re hardly given time to care. The characters here, secondary ones especially, are rarely blessed with great depth: two are drooling lunatics primed to fuck anything that moves, another wears glasses so thick and hair so rigid he might as well have “NERD” stamped on his forehead.
This shallowness is compensated for, especially in the main characters, by pinching and elongating their faults, making them rough and prickly and mean. Carmo (Mariana Loureiro) is a small-town hustler desperate for a bigger setting, not above using her body or whatever else is necessary to achieve that end. Her escape comes by way of Marco (Fele Martínez), a crippled smuggler and eternal grouch who has no interest in a partner. Despite their differences, the two remain stuck in the same broken pickup, as required, on a desperate jaunt that keeps them nasty and squabbling throughout. This kind of smeared-on grit reeks of shoddy characterization and bestows the film with an artificial edge. And while it’s refreshing to see a wheelchair-bound guy kick some ass, the nonstop attitude the central characters exhibit makes any individual instance dull. If we feel anything for these characters by the climactic decision, the one that will settle whether all this teasing has been the lead-up to romance or tragedy, it’s only by dint of familiarity.
Its plot and characters mostly invalidated, Carmo, Hit the Road might make advances on other fronts, but even these are halting. The film handles its visuals hesitantly, in forcefully ugly images and neon distortions of yellow and green. It seems prepared only approach beauty through a veneer of ugliness, though found shots of graffiti-streaked street scenes often succeed more directly. The final thing that hamstrings Carmo, Hit the Road is the profusion of fussy touches that stubbornly buzz about, like the captions that introduce new characters with snippets of anecdotal information about them. Such a stab at curtness in a film otherwise obsessed with malice signals its inherent dishonesty.
In the end, Carmo, Hit the Road suffers from an inability to decide what it wants to present. Its nastiness is obviously a stylistic front, a setup for an ending that we all know is coming, and its attempts to wrench suspense from such a foregone conclusion are insulting. Had Pasta scaled back his preening maximalism and focused on smaller pleasures, his impressive shooting of splurts of vomit or a seedy dive-bar bathroom, Carmo, Hit the Road may have been a lot easier to swallow.