Leo (Javier Bardem) is fading away. Barely coherent and monosyllabic, he at least has the love and care of his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning). Guided from his bed to a taxi, she tries to shepherd him to appointments with his dentist and optometrist. However, for a man losing his grasp both on the past and the present, this day will be the unfolding of a regret that has long threatened to consume him.
...dives deep into the hidden pasts of a man who is drowning.
Moving between three different instances in his life, director Sally Potter dives deep into the hidden pasts of a man who is drowning in modern-day New York. Phasing in and out of his memories, Leo experiences all three strands of his past in real-time. Unable to leave his hacienda with his first love Dolores (Salma Hayek), confused by his self-imposed loneliness on a Greek island barely and able to make it across a New York street without his daughter Molly, his thoughts and actions ricochet into one another.
With his coherence seemingly in free fall, ‘The Roads Not Taken’ takes time to illustrate the impatience of the able dealing with somebody who is mentally disabled. Stressed in the dentist’s chair he wets himself, mistaking a shopper’s dog for his beloved (yet long-deceased hound) Nestor, every incident starts to fracture Molly’s own existence.
Framed mostly in close focus, Xavier Bardem’s performance is wholly believable as a man dislocated from reality. Well experienced at portraying people locked inside their own mortality (see the excellent ‘The Sea Inside‘), this is everything you would expect from a character actor of such provenance. The real surprise though is Elle Fanning. As his put-upon daughter, she has affect to hope and disbelief that her father is in fact slipping away from her. Cajoling him as a child, cradling him as a mother, her performance as Molly has to gather the guttural grunts and abandoned sentences that fall from Leo’s mouth into some kind of sense. Also, shorn without make-up, Salma Hayek impresses as well as first love Dolores, who like Molly is wearied by a connection that she feels she is losing.
To amplify this growing sense of disconnection, Sally Potter skilfully composes her characters in open landscapes. Whether in a Mexican desert, a single rowing boat in the Aegean, or a New York warehouse and underground car park, Leo and Molly are always isolated. As a sawing cello section drags at the guilt that Leo is seemingly carrying,’The Roads Not Taken’ teases us with a brief moment of lucidity common in those afflicted by degenerative disease. That said, Sally Potter keeps this to a fractured embrace. From the privileged point of view that she affords the audience into Leo’s life, Leo finally makes complete sense but Molly can’t grasp his meaning. Closing with a single word that beautifully undoes Leo’s statically charged attempts at self-expression, this is an engrossing way back into the world of Sally Potter.2