After a year-long festival circuit run that resulted in multiple awards, Bastards’ Road will be released on DVD, VOD, and on digital platforms in North America on May 11, just in time for Memorial Day. In this documentary (winner of the Jury Award at the Naples International Film Festival and the Slamdance Audience Award among others), Baltimore and Washington D.C.-based director Brian Morrison follows veteran Marine Jon Hancock as he traverses the United States by foot, intermittently visiting other members of his 2/4 Marine unit along the way. Through talking heads, fly-on-the-wall coverage, and even smartphone diary entries, the viewer gets a startlingly realistic look at the lives of veterans.
“Look at anything that comes out of Hollywood right now,” Hancock says. “If a character is introduced, and they’re a veteran, there’s gonna be PTSD. There’s gonna be flashbacks. [They’re] gonna be curled up in a corner, and something’s gonna happen. He’s gonna grab a knife. I mean, it’s so stereotypical that every single veteran looks at it and turns the TV [off] ‘cause we’re like, ‘That’s wrong and stupid.’”
Despite toting a gritty, independent spirit, Bastards’ Road does not sacrifice any of the cinematic professionalism that the Hollywood studio system flaunts. Despite the documentary’s logistical obstacles, Morrison—in his feature directorial debut, no less—pulls off an impressive technical showcase, implementing swooping drone shots and crystal-clear shot composition while following Jon off the side of some of America’s most desolate major road networks.
That’s not to say that the action behind the camera was as seamless as the action inside the frame. “I’m trying to nail down a moving target,” Morrison says. “Jon would send me a GPS pin, and I would identify the closest airport, fly in, and stuff as much gear into a rental car possible, and just track him down on the side of the highway.”
In the center of this ambitious endeavor of thousands of miles, dozens of interview subjects, and rental cars is Jon. His levity at times elevates Bastards’ Road from becoming too bleak for its own good. A highlight of the film is a diary entry in which Jon recounts a close encounter with a family of skunks. If the mother ended up spraying Jon, it could compromise the arrival at his next destination.
Carrying such a charisma doing smartphone diaries in the middle of nowhere evokes Matt Damon in The Martian, pandering to an audience that can’t feed his energy. “Jon is charming,” executive producer Erin Kenway says. “He is this engaging personality, and I’m sure, one day, Creative Artists Agency will come knocking on his door, and he’ll be the next blockbuster charmer one day.”
But that levity is always grounded in reality. The walk was as much a psychological undertaking for Jon as it was a physical challenge. He credits cognitive behavioral therapy for allowing himself to process memories of his tours abroad. “The more time that I would spend in a certain memory,” Jon says, “the easier it was for me to access different points in that memory without becoming a sobbing mess.”
One reading of Bastards’ Road is that it is driven by those memories being manifested onscreen in the form of testimonials from an eclectic cast of interviewees. When the final act rears its head and almost exclusively follows the end of Jon’s walk, it could feel to the viewer like they were just awoken from a stupor of varying perspectives and relived memories. The victory lap of this undertaking doesn’t seem earned, to some extent, because the viewer doesn’t experience the journey in a visceral way in the likes of 127 Hours.
But the physical challenge was simply the means to an end that was the processing of Jon’s memories accumulated in combat. The added layers of storytelling don’t divert; they embellish the core conflict of the story. As Jon visits his brothers or the families of his fallen brothers, an anecdote organically develops into commentary.
The statistic that veterans are 50 percent more likely to commit suicide than non-veterans looms large over the runtime of Bastards’ Road. We find out that some of Jon’s fallen brothers didn’t die in combat; they died by taking their own lives. Juxtaposing these circumstances provokes the possibility that life after combat is as dangerous as combat itself.
That’s why the third act is so cathartic. Throughout the documentary, we gain insight into dark parts of Jon’s past. He could have been one of the brothers who had taken their lives. Instead, he pulled through, and he found some resolution in the end. It shows that just getting up for another day is half the battle. It’s like the Teenage Fanclub lyric: “You’re succeeding, but you don’t know it.”
Although it won’t be released internationally until later this year, the North American release in May, more than four years after the walk’s end in December 2020, is a welcome sign. Kenway is looking forward to having an outlet to pass on the truth about the veteran experience.
“We had a lovely letter from the Department of Defense,” Kenway says, “basically saying, ‘We don’t see this in Hollywood. You guys are doing an incredible service to show the truth and to show just really exists that humanity exists without the glorification of the armored mentality.”
Bastards’ Road is not just an opportunity for non-veterans to see veterans as they truly are; it’s also an opportunity for veterans to see themselves.
For information on release and upcoming screenings, follow Bastards’ Road on social media @bastardsroadmovie.