An intense road trip that engages and sometimes entertains even as it heads toward very dark places, Scott Monahan’s Anchorage refuses to dismiss its two fringe-dwelling protagonists (played by Monahan and screenwriter Dakota Loesch) as soulless or dumb. The brothers, headed north on an ill-conceived drug-running mission, may harbor antisocial tendencies, but conversational wit balances their dumber moments, and a bond of grief has turned brotherly love into fuel for a plan that’s more desperate than they seem to realize. Though it holds little commercial promise under current theatrical conditions, the pic is more than alive enough to fuel interest in the duo’s future projects.
Monahan plays Jacob, the saner of the two young men — a scary thing to say as we consider the blue-haired, gold-toothed white boy whose eyes often tell us his mind is somewhere else. Still, he’s a puppy compared to volatile, voluble John (Loesch), whose tats suggest scary backstories and whose drooping red long johns demonstrate a total lack of concern about propriety.
Lowlife road trip is more warmhearted than expected.
Good thing there’s nobody around. John and Jacob avoid interstates as they head west and north, squatting in abandoned houses situated far from any active communities. The boys make their own fun, swigging booze as they drive and ingesting a Fear and Loathing-worthy array of pharmaceuticals. If they’re driving toward railroad tracks and one warns of a “bump in the road,” that phrase has a double meaning.
These drugs, hijacked somehow back home, are part of a vast stash — thousands of pills, zipped into little plastic bags and stuffed into dozens of teddy bears. Because nobody thinks there’s anything suspicious about two freaky-looking youths with a trunk full of teddy bears. Jacob wants to sell the stuff quickly, but John’s convinced that the supply/demand equation will serve them better in Anchorage, where well-paid fishing crews have few ways to spend their dough. He has convinced Jacob their pills will net nearly a million bucks up north, so why not burn several hundred dollars’ worth of gasoline to get there?
Abandoning most of the expected mile-markers of the road movie (no diners, no hitchhikers, no cutoff-clad ships passing in the night), the pic mostly just soaks up the brothers’ chemistry, listening to them riff off each other and watching the pastimes they invent while stoned and untethered. Their dirtbag high spirits can be infectious, at least until Jacob starts barfing or John’s temper flares. (Once, maybe twice, Loesch lets that anger look like an acting exercise.) The movie offers just enough hints at their shared pain (their mother appears to have recently died after a long illness) to remind us they’re human. But it slowly reveals how much their personalities have diverged, foreshadowing violence to come.
Monahan throws in one or two flourishes that are open to unflattering interpretations: Is that corny, orchestral “America the Beautiful” just simple-minded irony regarding our nation’s opioid crisis? But cheap commentary is scarce here, and empathy runs deeper than a first glance suggests. These boys are doomed and dim, and you wouldn’t want them rolling through your town. But in a more forgiving place — Alaska? — maybe their lives won’t be unredeemable.