The lead character in writer-director Sally Potter’s new film The Roads Not Taken has made choices—or had them thrust upon him. He is Leo, a writer and great wounded lion played by Javier Bardem in alternative periods of his life. In his present circumstance, Leo’s mind has come apart; as such, our journey through time with him takes on a fractured aspect. We can’t be sure of what we’re seeing or where we’ll go next. Except, of course, we can.
Leo’s daughter Molly (Elle Fanning) has a day planned for him. They’re to go out into New York City to visit the dentist and optometrist. Owing to his mental state, this proves difficult; Leo is trapped in past visions with his first love Dolores (Salma Hayek) in Mexico and, elsewhere, his exile on a Greek island with some indifferent youths. There is emotional stress in both memories—or timelines—and that’s before we contrast them to Leo’s present-day struggle. In this, Potter has constructed The Roads Not Taken to run at Leo’s pace, jittery and uncertain, one moment jumping to the next—with reality always in question. It’s an effective conceit, visualized best by its opening image of a train running past Leo’s apartment window. For all the film’s technical brio, however, the eventual plot reveals land more with a thud than a shiver. And while the performances from Bardem and Fanning are solid, they’re mostly stranded at sea by Potter’s writing. (This is to say nothing of the supporting turns, including an embarrassing cameo from Laura Linney.)
As with Potter’s previous film The Party, the intent here is just too obvious. The Roads Not Taken is a more expansive film, constructed with striking images and noticeable editing, but it doesn’t amount to much more. We do feel something while watching it because we can acknowledge how hard everyone is working, Bardem in particular, to transport us somewhere special. But Potter’s attempts at dramatic obfuscation quickly turn tedious, reducing the film’s range of winding narrative roads down to a single rail.