‘The Roads Not Taken’ depicts a day in the life of Leo (Javier Bardem), a writer who is suffering with dementia, as his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning) takes him to the dentist and optometrist. What Molly doesn’t know is that in his head, Leo is on another journey, recalling two distinct periods of his life and how they could have gone differently.
The mystery surrounding ‘The Roads Not Taken’ as to how Leo got here and what is the significance of these points in time he is recalling, has the audience invested almost immediately. We also meet Dolores (Salma Hayek) from an early stage and wonder what happened to that relationship and how Leo ended up in New York.
Javier Bardem delivers a very different, far more devastating performance than his renowned Oscar-winning turn in ‘No Country For Old Men’. Leo is clearly very infirm, speaking words at random and unable to form full sentences. His ailment is physical as well as psychological, as we witness him struggling even to get his legs inside a taxi door. In the dentist’s chair, he keeps sitting up even as the dentist pleads with him to stay still, and eventually soils himself.
Elle Fanning, who previously worked with writer-director Sally Potter in ‘Ginger and Rosa’, is also excellent, besotted with her father and determined to care for him, excessively difficult as it is. She demands he be respected even in this condition, running in with her mum (Laura Linney) about Leo at one point. Molly has some beautiful, brief moments of connection with her father, and they make her so content, yet she looks so sad afterwards. You too feel these moments of happiness, but mostly just sad.
Potter’s film has something of an arthouse feel and while visually striking and admirably singular in its vision, it is ultimately too depressing to recommend. Moreover, the narrative is a bit frustrating in that while it emphasises “showing, not telling”, the audience ultimately has to learn a number of key points about Leo’s life through expository dialogue. The film is dedicated to Potter’s brother Nic, who suffered from a form of dementia, and it will undoubtedly prove most harrowing to anyone who has had a loved one in similar circumstances.