Don’t Drive Angry
If you’ve driven a vehicle, you’ve gotten mad. That’s just a facet of life in present-day America. You get behind the wheel and after you’ve left point A and you’re on the way to point B…something happens. Maybe it’s a person in front of you going a little too slow. Maybe it’s some Danica Patrick wannabe who’s riding your bumper. Maybe it’s some clown swerving all over the place and nearly sideswiping you. They’re not driving because they’re like Mad Max, shiny and chrome on the Fury Road, they’re just dicking around on their phone.
Road rage is exquisite grist for movies, particularly thrillers and horror movies. Those films zero in on our anxieties, and America in 2021 remains an extremely anxious place. If you drive, I guarantee there’s been a moment where you’ve witnessed someone driving like a psychopath, and you’ve realized that provoking said psychopath could come back on you with a vengeance. How many news stories have we seen where a road rage incident ends with a fistfight or a shooting?
The weird part, though, is that there haven’t actually been that many movies about people going cuckoo bananapants in an automotive sense. There’s Duel, the granddaddy of automotive terror films and the first film of one Steven Spielberg. There’s the very good and forgotten Changing Lanes, where a fender bender between Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck goes out of control. And there’s Unhinged, the frankly not very good thriller in which Russell Crowe throws a homicidal temper tantrum.
Here’s the even weirder part…in my mind, I always thought of road rage as an American phenomenon. That felt particularly true when it comes to our European cousins. I always figured the land of socialized medicine and efficient public transportation would be largely immune to automotive insanity. Foolish critic! I direct your attention to the fast-paced and brutal Dutch thriller Tailgate.
It begins with Ed (Willem de Wolf). He holds up the phone and tells the bicyclist to come and get it. The bicyclist won’t. He’s terrified. He’s pedaling as fast as he can, but the rolling Dutch hills don’t offer many places to hide. Ed’s white van comes out of nowhere, smashes into the bicyclist, and crushes his leg. He pleads to Ed, who responds with, “The time for apologies is behind us.” We get the sense that Ed has been about his work for quite some time.
Later, we meet Hans (Jeroen Spitzenberger). If you asked him, he’d probably tell you he’s a family man, a good father, a good guy. If you watched him, though? Perhaps not. A little too abruptly, he tosses his daughters Milou (Roosmarijn van der Hoek) and Robine (Liz Vergeer) into the family’s SUV. Hans asks where his wife Diana (Anniek Pheifer is. The girls gleefully reply, “Mom had to poop!” So he sits in the family’s SUV, impatiently drumming his fingers.
Hans is stressed out as it is. The family is heading to visit his parents, which will not be a fun-filled adventure. His father Joop (Hubert Fermin) is in the grip of dementia, and he no longer recognizes his son or granddaughters. His mother Trudy (Truus te Selle) is a little anxious, a little controlling, and the family has her oatmeal soup to look forward to.*
You can at least empathize with Hans when he encounters a white van, tootling along at exactly the speed limit in the left lane. His anger grows as he tailgates the van. Honks at it. Diana tells him to cool down. Hans is insistent that he’ll teach the bastard driving the van a lesson. The problem is that the bastard in question is Ed, and his attention is now firmly affixed upon Hans.
Road rage incidents, major or minor, have a habit of escalating very quickly. Director Lodewijk Crijns recognizes that. He also knows that people don’t just snap and that violent acts are always preceded by escalation. It’s good that Tailgate moves like a rocket. No time is wasted as we blast from scene to scene, but it’s better that Crijns efficiently weaves in character development alongside the action. He takes the time to make the characters matter so that we care about them whether they’re menaced or doing the menacing. Crijns has made the kind of film that is cinematic catnip for me; a genre film with something to say.
Crijns additionally wrote the screenplay, and he did something that I was kind of amazed by. At its core, the script is about toxic masculinity. Watch how Hans makes decisions. Quickly, without data and often with nothing more than an ill-informed hunch.** Watch how nearly every decision he makes ends up making the situation worse, and how he’s offered numerous chances to de-escalate and consistently refuses. Watch how he consistently ignores the suggestions of Diana, suggestions that had they been heeded, would have likely made things better. Crijns script doesn’t beat us over the head with it, nor does it engage in victim-blaming. Instead, we see a methodical progression of decisions made by Hans. All based on arrogance, poor judgment, and a total inability to admit error. All seemingly designed to piss off the worst person possible. Would an American remake feature a protagonist who is that fundamentally weak?
The third piece of the puzzle is the right cast, actors that can shed their vanity and deliver performances fitting the tone of the film. As Hans, Jeroen Spitzenberger embraces the weakness of the character. I could see a major American star demanding that the role be of an upstanding guy who makes one mistake. Instead, Hans is consistently kind of a dick. He needles his wife, is short with his girls, makes things worse, and is probably closer to the kind of people we actually are.
The fantastically named Willem de Wolf plays Ed a little closer to a garden variety maniac, one who has the ability to be magically driving just behind his victims. However, he does two things that I admired. First, his physical presence is efficient and controlled. De Wolf never gesticulates wildly or bellows at his victims. He’s playing a guy who’s very considered and locked down. Secondly, Ed is a man with an unyielding code. He gives his victims multiple chances to apologize and own up to their behavior, making him a killer who feels like a philosophical cousin to Hannibal Lecter. It’s not de Wolf’s fault, but I would have liked to have seen a moment where Ed is forced to look in the mirror. Take it from me, as a person who values manners, it’s tough for me to recognize when I’ve been impolite.
We’ve all had a moment witnessing the poor driving of our fellow humans. We’ve muttered something like, “That guy is going to kill someone.” We’ve seen the news reports where poor driving led to a bloodbath. Tailgate effectively taps into that anxiety with top-notch suspense. It shows us a protagonist who won’t back down and a killer who’s more than happy to step up.
*Because who among us doesn’t love a toasty-warm bowl of oatmeal soup?
**Much like the decision-making style of certain former Presidents I could name.