Red River Road

Red River Road (2020)

Red River Road first published by

“If you were infected, how would you know that’s real?,” asks Stephen Witten in Red River Road. “That’s what this does! Don’t you understand? It steals reality right out from under you!”

Stephen is played by the film’s writer/director/editor/cinematographer/composer/co-producer Paul Schuyler, who stars alongside his real-life wife Jade Schuyler (as Anna Witten) and their sons Quinn and Shaw Schuyler (as Wyatt and Sean Witten). There is an odd reality effect going on here, as the Schuylers play the Wittens but are also, to a degree, playing themselves. Yet it is not only the names that have been changed. For even though Red River Road was made by the Schuylers in their home during lockdown, and follows the Wittens who are also housebound in their own lockdown, the latter are in quarantine not from Covid-19, but from a WiFi-borne pandemic that makes its sufferers lose their hold on reality, akin to the virus in George A. Romero’s The Crazies (1973), or even more particularly from David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry’s The Signal (2007) or Tod Williams’ Cell (2016). Here, food and entertainment are delivered daily outside the Witten home in barcoded crates that recall the similar supply boxes from Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium (2019); and implants make any attempt to leave the property’s perimeter result in tinnitus, headaches and nausea, as in Stuart Gordon’s dystopian prison movie Fortress (1992). While domestic life carries on, it is a closed system of containment, control and entrapment whose maddeningly claustrophobic quality will be familiar to anyone who has spent much of the last year engaged in enforced social distancing.

The device-transmitted disease of the mind at the film’s centre raises epistemological, even existential questions. “What if it’s just a fever dream, how would you know?,” Anna asks her husband. “What if you’re just strapped to a bed somewhere in some induced coma so you don’t hurt yourself or rip your face off? This whole time you think you’re just lying next to me, how would you know?” This dramatises the Cartesian conundrum of the evil demon, causing us to doubt the truth value of everything that we watch. Red River Road may start in the realist mode of cinéma vérité, with the camera a fly on the wall to the Wittens’ mundane daily routines – but ever so gradually it will introduce uncanny, inexplicable elements that make both the characters, and us with them, interrogate the solidity of their experiences’ foundations. Meanwhile, adding to all the emerging disorientation is a confusion as to where the Wittens’ reality ends and the Schuylers’ begins. Anna’s dreams, for example, are cut together – often jarringly – from the Schuylers’ old home videos, and a photo that she later locates of herself and Stephen is clearly labelled with the filmmaking couple’s actual names. This is a sophisticated way of shifting Anna’s perceptions to a different paradigm, while simultaneously marking the film as an allegorical version of the filmmakers’ own lives under the shadow of Coronavirus, at a time when many of us have been reflecting upon ourselves and our relationships with others, and facing daily questions of identity, alienation and ennui.

Anna Witten (Jade Schuyler), reluctantly reflecting upon herself

Early on in Red River Road, Anna tells Stephen of a dream she has had in which she chases him through the woods but wakes before she manages to see his face. Later, the Wittens’ dog Brody mysteriously disappears into the woods adjacent to the property, never to return. Themes of pursuit and loss pervade the film, as Anna must face, little by little, the erasure of all that she holds dear, no matter how hard she may try to cling to these things as her last desperate grip on reality. By the end the Wittens’ summer house is accommodating the tropes of full-blown horror, haunted as it is by the half-seen ghosts of all that Anna has lost – but the unnerving terror of these incursions is also suffused with a deep melancholy, as Anna’s anxieties and longings fight it out before settling on a more pleasant scenario that she suspects is a fantasy, but embraces anyway. It is the same dilemma – albeit on a much smaller scale – as the close of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), confronting viewers with the wish-fulfilment delusions that are the beating heart of cinema’s fictions, however realist they may seem. 

Like John Adams and Toby Poser’s The Deeper You Dig (2019), the Schuylers’ Red River Road is a low-budget, do-it-yourself ‘family film’ whose makers get to play-act every family’s greatest fears – of severance, of dementia and of mortality itself. If it ends with its protagonist displaying on her face a complex, shifting smile that registers a highly nuanced response (of happiness, but also of other, darker emotions), this reflects and modulates the viewer’s own reception of a film that messes, often jarringly, with our thoughts and feelings. Here doubt is the true horror, as we too are left uncertain what is real. 

strap: Paul Schuyler’s unsettling and disorienting pandemic psychodrama takes us from family vérité to lockdown freakout.

Anton Bitel