By Ben Cohen
This is less of a review and more of a reflection. The quality of this film is undeniable, it’s been preserved as a "masterwork" by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada and was given a perfect 4/4 by the late Roger Ebert. We know it’s good, and a piece of Canadian history. Let’s talk about why that’s the case.
Peter’s had enough. Enough of the unglamorous Maritimes. Enough of toiling in perpetual poverty as a carpenter’s apprentice. He’s set his sights on a better life in Toronto. One where he’d be able to let his blistered, overworked hands and sun-fried skin heal inside an air-conditioned office. He corrals his friend Joey, and together they blaze on westward from Cape Breton in their spray-painted Chevy Impala.
The iconic flame design and writing on Peter’s ‘60s Impala has become a fixture in Canadian pop culture.
“I just wanna do something that matters. Somethin’ that shows for myself, says I was there; Peter McGraw was there,” he says to Joey.
It’s not so easy, though. The pair spend their first big city night in the Salvation Army, flipping through newspaper classifieds looking for work. With barely enough money to eat, and certainly not enough to get back home, they find themselves with their backs pressed firmly against the wall.
The following day, Peter decorates himself in a suit and barges into an advertising agency. The hiring manager can’t believe it. “You don’t even have a high-school diploma,” he reminds Peter. “The sort of job you’re applying for calls for a university degree.”
“Well what’s the sense in getting an education? I mean, you need an education to work on the docks? Or in the mines? There ain’t a hell of a lot to choose from in the Maritimes, you know,” he replies.
They give in, get menial jobs loading crates at a ginger ale bottling factory and spend their nights off by drinking and gallivanting down the almost unrecognizable 1970 Yonge Street strip. Joey acts as a foil to Peter’s – perhaps undeserved – ambition. He’s complacent. Though their new job is as back-breaking as anything they’d find back home, Joey appreciates the higher rate of pay that the Ontario minimum wage affords them.
In stark, realistic contrast to accepted Hollywood tropes, all of Peter’s attempts at bettering himself are thwarted. When he tries to learn how to operate some of the machines at work, he’s immediately shut-down by his superiors, who deride him, saying he’s “too stupid” to handle the responsibility. When he asks the office bombshell out, she tepidly agrees, but spends her time dancing without him and ends the night by slamming her apartment door in his face after a transparent excuse and a curt goodbye. While this may sound unpleasant to watch, it’s important to note that this movie was made before the advent of any real Canadian film industry. This somber, subversive, almost documentary-style tone helped define our country’s cinematic voice in the decades to come.
Meanwhile, Joey’s girlfriend gets pregnant and they get married. They move out together. He gets himself a credit card on which he buys a fancy colour TV and expensive furniture. If only the guys back home could see all this, he says, beaming.
Rejecting Hollywood convention once again, when both men find that they’ve lost their jobs due to seasonal downsizing, they don’t fall into something better right after. From that point on, the film becomes a desperate, frustrating, unfair crawl through the mire of unemployment as bills stack and Joey’s wife’s delivery looms closer.
The film ends when, after a botched grocery store heist, the two Nova Scotia men assault a cashier with a tire iron and flee into the night. They return home the following day to find that the police had beaten them there that morning and would return again soon. Having been swiftly evicted, they discover their belongings left unceremoniously on the street by the landlord. Fearing jailtime, Peter convinces Joey to abandon his pregnant wife, now staying with her aunt and uncle, and continue on to the west coast. She’d just slow them down, they rationalise, and she’s safe with her relatives. Plenty of husbands leave their wives, says Peter.
That’s it. This unforgettable, shoestring-budget tragedy finishes far from anything we’d hazard to call a happy ending. There’s no moral to the story, no reward for any risks taken, no punishment for any ethical lapses. The film’s unflinching realism depicts failure after failure. There is no God in Goin’ Down the Road, only men struggling to survive. That’s precisely what sets this movie apart from any of its contemporaries. It’s not a story that tries to make you happy, it’s a story about people trying to be happy.
Goin’ Down the Road is the Canadian Grapes of Wrath; it’s the story of anyone from a rural area who’s been seduced by big city lights, unaware of the loneliness and desperation hidden in the shadows they cast. This movie is as timeless as a love story, as gut-wrenching as a tear-jerker and as poignant as a documentary. That’s why it’ll never be forgotten. Goin’ Down the Road is a brand burned deep into Canadian film canon. This is the definitive story of so many real people that slipped through the fingers of prosperity and wound up cold and alone out on mean, unforgiving streets.
But, like so many other great artistic touchstones, there’s an unnecessary sequel released decades later to satiate a public that just can’t stop thinking about the original. Like Go Set a Watchman to To Kill a Mockingbird or Closing Time to Catch-22, there is a Down the Road Again to Goin’ Down the Road. More on that next time, though.
This piece was edited by Brent Smyth.