Currently available on Apple TV and Google Play, writer/director Rob Willey's dark yet thoughtful crime thriller River Road flirts with the formulaic but manages to find a unique voice all its own and Willey's strong ensemble cast brings it all to life quite nicely.
The film stars Riverdale's Cody Kearsley as a rock guitarist who begins an intense romance with Zoe (Lexi Redman, Concrete Evidence), a hard partying and free-spirited young woman. The two spiral into an increasingly destructive relationship centered around heroin and crime.
River Road picked up seven Leo Award nominations in 2021, winning two for an excellent supporting turn by Steven Roberts (Tully, Beyond the Woods) and for the original music by Willey and Michael Chambers.
Kearsley's Travis is an intriguing fellow, a responsible guitarist for a popular rock band and otherwise health nut whose downward spiral here would seem to be rather surprising. Travis's foray into heroin alongside the confident, sarcastic Zoe is seemingly an accidental one but one that grips hard once it arrives. It doesn't take long for the two to see the worlds they created begin to fall apart as they spend their time, energy, and money going from one high to the next and constantly seeking the next. Much of the film is viewed in flashback of sorts, Travis's conversation with his sponsor causing him to look back and reflect in a way that is appropriately, well, dry. Kearsley is quite strong here, a definite notch above what we often experience in the more modestly budgeted indies. It's to Kearsley's credit that we follow Travis everywhere and never quite lose hope in him.
For the most part, Willey's dialogue feels honest and natural throughout River Road. Having just listened to Hootie & The Blowfish drummer Jim Sonefeld's audio book Swimming with the Blowfish, I couldn't help but think of Sonefeld as I watched Travis's story play out. In some ways, vastly different of course but there's common ground and Kearsley's occasional narration within the film often reminded me of Sonefeld.
While Redman isn't quite up to Kearsley's performance level, especially in the film's more intense moments, the relative newcomer shows tremendous promise here and it'll be interesting to watch her grow from here.
Despite the star power of Kearsley, it's the award-winning Steven Roberts who is the secret weapon for River Road as Fresno, a local drug lord and more than a little menacing human being with whom Zoe and Travis cross in a way that sets the stage for the action that unfolds.
Willey handles the lensing himself here and does so quite nicely with an inventive, immersive color palette that is both jarring yet deceptively comfortable. It's an unusual approach that pays off quite nicely.
I admire Willey's adventurous dialogue and the film's occasionally unique decision that allows it to stand apart from other crime thrillers, though occasionally it does feel a tad gimmicky and interrupts the flow. The real strength here, at least for me, is that I was captivated by these characters from beginning to end and I was invested in their stories even when those stories hit a bit of a false note.
After a successful festival run, River Road is heading into distribution. If you get a chance, check it out.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic