On the road again

Film - Philip Kerr goes in search of the American sublime and ends up in Nevada

Of all the pictures in "American Sublime", Tate Britain's exhibition of 19th-century American landscape painting, perhaps the most awe-inspiring is Thomas Moran's Nearing Camp, Evening on the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming (1882). Looking at it, you half expect to see a giant flying saucer hovering over the top of the biggest mesa, or, at the very least, John Ford filming a racing stagecoach pursued by a group of whooping Indians. More than a century later, the vast American landscapes that Moran and others like him rendered so forcefully appear very different.

Take Alamogordo in New Mexico, for example. Surrounded by mountains so impressive that, in almost any other country, they would be holy, Alamogordo itself is a paradigm of unrestrained and shoddy commercialism - a neon-lit highway of gas stations, cheap furniture galleries, dusty motels, car rentals, fast-food restaurants, mini-markets and shopping malls. Oppidan philistinism at its worst, Alamogordo's very existence in this almost prelapsarian landscape is a typically American obscenity of town planning, the equivalent of discovering the Arndale Shopping Centre in the temple of Amon-Re at Karnak, in Egypt. And yet, at the same time, Alamogordo reveals something fundamental about America.

In Europe, most towns and villages rose up around churches; but in America, outside the big cities, the town centre is the road, and American towns are often just gas station stops on the road to somewhere else. Once you understand the central significance of the highway in American conurbations, you understand what the country is all about. If civilisation is built on a degree of permanence, then America is impermanence writ large. It becomes easier to see why Americans seem "American" more than they seem cultivated; and why, to our European eyes, they appear to be inhabitants of myth rather than history. In a sense, with something better always down the road, they are persistent revolutionaries.

Given the importance of the road in the American psyche, it should hardly surprise anyone that roads should assume such importance in American films. Indeed, American road movies inhabit their own distinctive genre - that of films such as Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Badlands, Two-Lane Blacktop and Duel.

Although Road Kill isn't in the same league as any of these - it's too much like Duel to be notable - the film still gives a pretty exciting ride, and reminded me of why I never stay in motels. (Frankly, I am always surprised that a generation brought up on Hitchcock's Psycho can ever feel comfortable in one of these itinerant, anonymous places.)

From John Dahl, the director of the critically acclaimed and wonderfully sexy Last Seduction, you expect a noirish thriller with a few corpses and a dark sense of humour, and I'm happy to say that, in this respect at least, Road Kill does not disappoint. And while there is nothing here to equal the ball-breaking brilliance of Linda Fiorentino's performance in The Last Seduction (why hasn't this superb actress worked more?), Road Kill is still the best lowish-budget, one-idea thriller I've seen since Dead Calm.

During his summer vacation, the west-coast college freshman Lewis (Paul Walker) buys a car to drive home across America with Venna, the girl of his dreams. But his romantic plans are detoured when fraternal duty obliges Lewis to stop and bail his ne'er-do-well brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) out of jail. With nothing better to do, the feckless Fuller decides to accompany his brother east and home. To say thank you, and to help pass the time on America's seemingly interminable interstate highways, he buys Lewis a CB radio.

Screwing around, as is his wont, Fuller browbeats Lewis into using the CB to play a cruel prank on a lonely trucker by pretending to be a good-time gal. Affecting the sweet voice and low morals of a White House intern, Lewis encourages the hapless trucker to join him for a night of passion and pink champagne in Room 17 of the motel where he and Fuller have elected to stay. But when they listen through the Orion paperback (something cheap and nasty, anyway) of a wall as the trucker arrives for what he imagines to be his hot date, the joke quickly turns sour. Finding a loudmouth salesman in the appointed room instead of the up-for-it Daisy Duke he had been expecting, the disappointed trucker cuts up rough.

The next morning, the brothers come out of their motel room to discover a police line and a body missing a jawbone. Things go from bad to worse as Lewis and Fuller find themselves pursued across the American landscape by a redneck who does not see the funny side of jokes involving female impersonation. By which time, it goes without saying, neither do they.

With a nod to Hitchcock (there's a scene in a cornfield that looks as if it came straight out of North by Northwest) and some protracted genuflection to Steven Spielberg (you never quite shake off the feeling that what you are watching might be Duel II: the return journey), Road Kill is a road movie that is much better than it perhaps deserved to be. Mostly filmed along a 300-mile stretch of Interstate 80 in northern Nevada, it may not look as sublime as anything in Thomas Moran's painting, but it's every bit as American.

Road Kill (15) is released nationwide on 26 April