Whew, Road House. MST3K’s Michael J. Nelson calls it “the Fanny and Alexander of bad movies.” Roger Ebert said “Road House is the kind of movie that leaves reality so far behind that you have to accept it on its own terms.” They are not wrong. Watching Road House is a bit like watching Last Year at Marienbad or Synecdoche, N.Y., if those movies were a little more nonsensical and, oh yes, risibly awful.
The only reasonable way to engage with Road House is to accept that it takes place in its own universe, a world that is cosmetically and physically indistinguishable from ours, but where our social and legal norms do not apply. Let’s examine the social, economic, and legal forces at play in this world, shall we?
Dalton, our hero, is a famous Zen bouncer. Patrick Swayze conveys the “Zen” part by delivering his lines with a blank, Keanu-esque lack of affect. [1. In this universe, evidently “Zen” = “vacantly stupid.” 2. In this (presumably also pre-internet 1989) universe, there are famous bouncers. How do the throngs of fans learn about the top-notch bouncers? In bouncer-specific magazines and journals? Playbounce? Bouncer Homes and Gardens? Can you pick up Bounce Fancier at the news stand?
He’s so renowned that a club owner from a smallish Missouri town pays Dalton $500 a night (plus $5000 upfront and all medical expenses) to come oversee the bouncing squad at his seedy smalltown roadhouse, “the kind of place where they sweep up the eyeballs at closing time.” [3. In this universe, a smallish town can provide enough low-life-loving heavy drinkers to support an enormous bar — so enormous that it requires a squad of half a dozen full-time bouncers, and so remunerative that the owner can pay the new head bouncer somewhere between $2500 and $3500 weekly for an indefinite period.]
Dalton moves to town and finds a fully furnished residential loft space above a nearby barn, conveniently within view of the home of his nemesis, the evil liquor distributor, mwah-hah-hah (played with growly relish by Ben Gazzara, mwah-hah-hah) who will eventually start killing people with startling sang-froid, mwah-hah-hah. [4. In the rural Missouri of this universe, residential housing is notably rare — a whole town has only two houses — yet the few available spaces are lavish and the unhoused never remark upon their homelessness. 5. Smalltown businessmen harbor personal grudges to such an extent that they routinely commit or incite others to commit murders. 6. Though this universe has police sirens, they have no actual police force.]
The whole scenario has an uncanny sense of being both familiar and deeply foreign, a potent sense of the Unheimliche. Compounding the audience’s cognitive dissonance are several images and outtakes that make little social sense in our world: an all-but-nameless love interest (Kelly Lynch, listed in the IMDb credits as “Doc”) who remains fully clad and blankly impassive during the big love scene, only to showcase her boobs and butt for the soulsearching midnight chat; a bucket-o’-blood dive bar refurbished into what looks like an Applebee’s/rollerdisco where the local bourgeoisie clamor for a table; the venerable Sam Elliot smilingly unbuttoning his trousers well past the point where most venerable actors would stop unbuttoning, for goodness sake!; “Pain don’t hurt”; a trophy room that might as well be a museum; a polar bear attacking a bad guy.
You can watch it in muted confusion or hollering hilarity; there’s little middle ground for Road House. I’m telling ya, if David Lynch had directed Road House, film students would be discussing in hushed tones its surrealist leaps, its measured ambiguity, its self-contradictory pseudo-pacifist theme, and its sojourns into magical realism. But he didn’t, so instead we watch it with hoots of derision and hilarity.