There was a tweet by critic Matt Singer that made the Internet rounds earlier this month consisting of a screenshot of available showtimes for the AMC theater in Times Square, all for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It’s a lot of showtimes. “This is not all of them,” Singer’s tweet reads, “I couldn’t fit them all in a single screengrab.”
AMC Times Square isn’t exactly the Lincoln Center in terms of promoting and advancing film culture, but tweet broadly speaks to the extent to which Disney’s mega franchises have successfully overshadowed anything resembling, if not competition, at least basic variety. I admired the mean spirited absurdism of Dr. Strange 2, for whatever it’s worth; I’d just rather smaller movies have a better shot at actually being seen.
Panah Panahi’s wonderful road trip comedy Jaddeh Khaki (Hit the Road), currently playing in limited release, is one such invisible gem, deserving an infinitely larger audience than whatever it’ll ultimately receive. The premise is simple: a nameless middle aged couple (Pantea Panahiha and Hassan Madjooni) and their two sons (Amin Simiar and Rayan Sarlak) are on a trip through the countryside somewhere outside Tehran. It’s unclear, initially, why they have to confiscate Little Brother’s cellphone mid journey and bury it in the desert, or why sardonic Dad’s leg is in a cast. There’s a sense of Hitchcockian paranoia to their suspicion that they’re being followed, only for it to be a kind Samaritan warning of leaky car fluids; it’s later paid off with an unexpected, welcome shot recalling North by Northwest. Hit the Road is filled with such nods to western pop culture, suggesting some combination of Panahi’s cinephilia and the extent to which Hollywood has solidified itself as the medium’s default lexicon. Big Brother’s answer to the greatest film is 2001: A Space Odyssey for the “zen state” it puts viewers in; a smuggler disguised in a burlap sack is likened to Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow from Batman Begins. All roads lead to the AMC Times Square.
Panah is the son of Iranian New Wave legend Jafar Panahi (The Circle, Offside); Hit the Road’s understated yet surefooted style reflects Jafar’s influence without feeling derivative. Panahi doles out information gradually, often in carefully composed static long takes with two figures in the frame, their conversations given room and time to breathe. Consider a darkly comic vignette in which taciturn Big Brother accidentally bumps a cyclist off the road and, ignoring Dad’s protests (“If he’s crying he’ll be fine”), stops to give the stranded athlete a lift to the next aid station. Eventually he’s dropped off in a stretch of countryside as desolate as where they first collided, no one seemingly better or worse off for the encounter, a self-contained moment of humanism.
In 2010 Panah’s father was charged with propaganda against the Iranian government and sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on directing movies. This resulted in the incredible documentary This Is Not a Film, which Panah filmed while under house arrest in his apartment, the film smuggled to Cannes in a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake. Hit the Road isn’t didactic in its politics, and despite its many ambiguities possesses a clear worldview. Its depiction of the lengths gone and rules broken for quotidian, human ends is all the more impactful for it.
Hit the Road (2021)
Runtime: 93 minutes
MPA Rating: Unrated
Streaming: Currently in limited release