Productions of road movies have seemed to come to a stop especially in light of the genres former popularity. Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine has recently said, "You cant make a road movie anymore because everyone has GPS. It's impossible to lose yourself anymore." Although there have been some fantastic examples of a resurgence in the genre in recent years (American Honey and Grandma to name a few) it is difficult not to look back at the films released at the genre's peak of popularity within the postmodern cinema of the 1990s. A personal favourite being the ever so cool Hanz Zimmer scored, Quentin Tarantino written, and Tony Scott directed True Romance. This article will analyze how True Romance offers a different take on the road movie genre, and explain how the film's value of style over substance substitutes the genre's conventional commentary of the ideology of the 'American Dream'.
As a postmodern production, True Romance is filled with intertextualities of many types of art references. A prime example of this is through the portrayal of the film’s protagonist, Clarence (Christian Slater), and his overriding obsession with Elvis Presley. Clarence’s narrative goal and his moral decisions are made through what can be perceived as thinking out loud, but is literally presented as a conversation with a faceless caricature representation of Elvis which is mimicked through Val Kilmer's performance as the idolised "King of Rock 'n' Roll". The iconographies are very clear as this Elvis is presented in a sparkling gold suite, his hair is quaffed in a 1950s pompadour, and Kilmer does a succesful job with a vocal performance that mimicks the icons "Southern Drawl". These conversations are not performed literally face to face; they are in fact performed through Clarence’s reflection. Certain mid-shots are used in this scene to portray Clarence and Elvis within the same frame of the mirror reflection. This is used to show that Clarence’s overriding obsession to look, act, and be like Elvis has essentially made him fabricate his own voice of morality into a superficial figure of Elvis.David Laderman observes that; ‘As in the postmodern road movie, representations playfully subsumes reality, imagery ironically consumes politics.’ For example, a key narrative conflict between Clarence and an antagonist, Drexl (Gary Oldman), was devised through the first example of these conversations. Therefore, without the consultation from this Elvis figure, Clarence would not have embarked onto his journey along the road. The ideology of the original road movie is substituted for this obsession over this mental image of the films protagonist.
Conventional to many of the road movies of the 1990s such as Thelma and Louise and Natural Born Killers, as spectators we are positioned with an outlaw couple and their journey to salvation. According to Jack Boozer ‘these young couples may challenge social convention or even crime, and may succeed in expanding the limits of social accommodation, but their pop culture image-consciousness encloses them within artifice.’ The outlaw couple of Clarence and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) do in fact challenge social convention by being rebellious through murder, stealing and even drug dealing. However, they perform these crimes not simply to be rebellious, but to actually escape the world of crime and create a more traditional peaceful family lifestyle together. Boozer continues to explain; ‘They long for a nostalgic, traditional gender and family organization, and thus remain within an endless circulation of cultural quotations characteristics of postmodern hegemony.’
True Romance essentially works more as a romantic take on the road movie, as this quest for a traditional family lifestyle is achieved within the resolution of the film. The final scene depicts the outlaw couple driving away and surviving a gunfight. As they drive into Mexico, the setting transitions from the road to a sunset-lit beach, where Alabama watches her husband Clarence playing with her son, Elvis. The story of this outlaw couple ends happily, and highly romanticized as the final shot of a simmering sunset in parallel to a Hans Zimmer score filled with joyful toned arpeggios from the sounds of steel drums closes the narrative.
Furthermore, this highly romanticised ending offers a more revised conclusion to the road movie. Laderman observes about the film genre that; ‘Recent road films often make fun of the genre as they revisit/ revise it.’True Romance revises the genre as it does not offer an ideology of escaping traditional values of the ‘American dream’, it actually reinforces these traditional values. As already analysed the final scene depicts this perfectly, as a traditional heterosexual family is presented in the new-equilibrium of the narrative. But as well as this example, the couple's journey along the road shows examples of patching up broken family ties. For example, during the narrative problems and complications of the film, Clarence is reunited with his Father Clifford (Dennis Hopper), who he hasn’t attempted to contact for many years. Instead of the father rightfully rejecting Clarence’s plea for help, he helps him sincerely as he gives him money to carry traveling along the road with Alabama. Scenes such as these show Clarence’s transformation along the road from being a rebellious bachelor to a traditional family man.
In conclusion, True Romance provides stylised postmodern imagery, in favor of establishing a political sentiment of the road movie genre and the ‘American dream’. Laderman observes that; ‘Visual thrills often over-compensate for a lack of historical, social, or political grounding, even when the point of view is marginal.’ This describes True Romance quite well, as the sentiment of the film is essentially style over substance. Arguably, the only ideological stance on the genre the film provides is a return to family values in the narrative resolution. However, this is a coherent convention throughout the postmodern productions of this genre. As similar road films such as Natural Born Killers and Wild at Heart provide the same narrative conclusion of a new family within a new equilibrium.
Boozer, Jack, “Seduction and Betrayal in the Heartland: Thelma and Louise”, in Literature Film Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 3 (1995)
Laderman, David, “what a Trip: The Road Film and American Culture” in Journal of Film and Video vol. 48, no. 1-2 (Spring-Summer 1996)
Laderman, David, Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2002)
© 2018 Andy Sciambarella