This jolt of third-world horror begins with its most ostentatious effect, an absurdly hectic credits sequence that reverses letters in every cast and crewmember’s name, slices each one with custom-shape barbed wire, then sets them adrift across the screen, to weave before and behind the poles, foliage, and real barbed wire that line the film’s titular menace. These credits accurately foretell the amateur hour that follows, but they also exemplify the glee the filmmakers obviously took in being able to bring a reductive freak-out to fruition.
The Road constantly flips the switch on time. It begins in the present with a gunshot, ostensibly the story’s endgame, before rewinding to an earlier day—to a police academy where a woman tries to follow up on the case of her missing daughters, unseen since 1998. Cut to a girl gently crashing her bike into a wooden fence she regards with a show of fright typically reserved for, say, a looming tsunami. Her confrontation with the barrier suggests they go way back. They don’t. The moment, hilariously captured in a swooping Michael Bay-ian overhead, is merely a clumsy means of setting up the notion that behind the fence lies a road less taken.
The girl, her sister, and a boy go joyriding, and in an attempt to foolishly avoid passing a police car, they take a detour through the oddly untrafficked road, a portal, it would seem, through time. The darkness of poor production values augments the fright of their encounter with a car that appears to drive itself and a bloodied woman who walks around with a bag tied over her head. She torments them even though she doesn’t appear to actually see them, and when their car fails them, when it doesn’t take them in the direction of home even after they’ve turned it around, they get out and stumble across more horrors.
The darkness also creepily and evocatively fuses the plight of these kids with that of the girls that went missing over a decade ago on the same road. But the film’s first and most effective part is beholden to fuzzy details, such as whether or not some of these kids actually exist, and could have benefited from political contours or a more carefully thought-out sense of why these particular characters slip into this time warp—or someone else’s slipstream—almost at random.
For a spell, the film gets by on its unpretentious flair for atmosphere, even its disconcerting nonsensicality. But then the story shifts to 2008, then to 1998, and finally back to the present, each leap in time a puzzle piece meant to clarify why people keep going missing on the road and, less successfully, the psychic headspace that’s shared by both the living and the dead. In the light of day, not only does it become unmistakable that Yam Laranas’s style largely consists of references to directors with better moves, but that his story is fixated on the sort of retrograde psychoanalysis that went out with the last scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho.