‘Trucker’–Another Great Movie You’ll Never See

truckerposteruseYears ago, I worked a few summers at a truck stop to earn money to return to college in the fall. I was a cashier in the small store that sold souvenirs to tourists and supplies to the truckers, which afforded me an opportunity to chat with customers and other employees. I retain fond memories of my experiences, primarily because of the diversity of people that I met.  The worst of the lot were middle-class tourists and their obnoxious offspring, leaving me with a life-long dislike of conventional adult lifestyles; the best were the truckers, most of whom earned their collective nickname, “the knights of the road.” A handful of those “knights” were women truckers. Though less open and friendly than their male counterparts, the ladies of the road were admirable in their independence, confidence, and competence in a male-dominated occupation. Some of them were driving partners with their husbands, taking over the wheel while their men rested or slept.

Recently, I watched the independent drama Trucker, starring Michelle Monaghan, Nathan Fillion, and Benjamin Bratt, and I was reminded of those summers at the truck stop when I had more respect for the ladies of the road than the women who let their devil spawn run wild through my store. Trucker, which is the story of a woman truck driver forced to reconnect with a son she gave up years earlier, features great performances, a strong female character, a slice of working-class life that is not condescending, and good filmmaking by a relatively new director. But, like the plight of most indie films with serious content, Trucker will likely not play on a big screen near you anytime soon, and it will be lost in obscurity. I saw the film at Facets Multi-Media, where our programmer Charles Coleman, despite pinched budgets and dwindling staff, still manages to book some great films. It’s the only venue in town that showed the film, which opened in very limited release on October 9. Sadly, even though Roger Ebert gave it a four-star review, few Chicagoans showed up to see the film. The next time anybody in town complains about the state of commercial Hollywood films, and how there are no movies made for adults anymore, I am going smash a poster of Trucker over their heads.

Reading about the difficulties in getting this film produced and distributed makes for a depressing account of the uncertainties of independent filmmaking and an eye-opening explanation for the lack of decent films in theaters. Star Michelle Monaghan was offered the role in 2006, but it took a year for first-time director James Mottern to secure $1.5 million in financing to make the film. Trucker was shot in the summer of 2007 in just 19 days, a fast shoot even for an indie. After the film was completed, it took another year and a half to find a distributor. Mottern did not get the film finished in time to enter the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, though it was the type of film that was expected to be in the festival. Sundance has become the key marketplace for American indie films, and if a film doesn’t make it into the festival, then the director misses out on the major distributors, plus a stigma is attached to the film. In other words, the buzz becomes, “If the film didn’t make it into Sundance, then what is wrong with it.” Trucker did get accepted into the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, which was the fest begun by Robert DeNiro in the wake of 9/11. Finally at the end of 2008, a small distributor of low-profile indie films, Monterey Media, picked it up just as Mottern was about to give up. Trucker has toured the film-festival circuit this year, with Monterey trying to stir up strong word of mouth via reviews and interviews. It was finally released in very limited venues in major markets a couple of weeks ago. However, without print and television advertizing or an aggressive marketing campaign, which a small company like Monterey can ill afford, few exhibitors will bother to book it.

The best chance for Trucker to gain an audience will be during awards season. Receiving acknowledgements from the various critics’ circles, or better yet, nominations for an Independent Spirit Award or an Academy Award, will garner the attention of the press and public. Only after the public becomes informed and interested will exhibitors in smaller markets be tempted to book the film. Monterey Media is hoping that Trucker will become this year’s Frozen River (2008) or Away from Her (2006), and they were quick to include a reference to Ebert’s four-star review on the film’s website. Ebert called Monaghan’s performance worthy of an Oscar nomination for best actress, and considering how few intelligent roles there are for actresses in studio films, she has a good chance.

trucker1kid

MICHELLE MONAGHAN AND JIMMY BENNETT

And, Monaghan is terrific in a unique role with true depth of character. There are few portrayals of working class life that are not demeaning, and Mottern offers a portrait of a flawed character without judging or criticizing her. Monaghan stars as Diane Ford, a long-haul trucker who drives an 18-wheeler across the country. She likes the independence of her occupation and hasn’t the time or inclination for relationships. For fun and relaxation between hauls, she drinks and dances at the local VFW with Runner, her male friend who is a day laborer and conveniently married to someone else. However, her life is disrupted when her ex-husband Leonard becomes terminally ill with colon cancer, and she has to take in their son. Diane had left both of them behind a decade earlier because she felt trapped by marriage and motherhood. Throughout the film, mother and son struggle to come together in a story that is neither soft nor sentimental. Jimmy Bennett, who starred as the young James Kirk in this year’s Star Trek film, manages to play the son without being cloying or cute. Two actors who have enjoyed most of their success on television, Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Desperate Housewives, and Castle) and Benjamin Bratt (Law and Order, E-Ring, and The Cleaner), costar as Runner and Leonard, respectively. And, Joey Lauren Adams rounds out the adult actors playing Leonard’s girlfriend, Jenny Bell.

truckerfillion

FILLION AND MONAGHAN

Watching seasoned actors get an opportunity to use their skills is one of the pleasures of this film. Mottern makes use of simple shot/reverse shot set-ups in the exchanges between Diane and her son, or between Diane and Runner, and often the camera lingers on their faces after the lines are spoken. This allows the actor the space to reveal the inner natures of the characters, because they are playing people who are inarticulate, confused, or unable to express in words what they truly feel. Small wonder that that Monaghan, Fillion, Bratt, and Adams enjoyed working in this film, which gave them an opportunity to act, instead of merely spewing forth large amounts of explanatory dialogue, throwing off catchy one-liners, or being the object of the male character’s gaze.

truckerhonor2

NICELY GROOMED AND NICELY DRESSED AS 'THE GIRL' IN "MADE OF HONOR"

truckerhair

NOT A HAIR IN PLACE

But, this is Michelle Monaghan’s film, and her character Diane dominates the story. Interestingly, Monaghan had just wrapped the big studio comedy Made of Honor playing opposite Patrick Dempsey when she got behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler to shoot her first scenes for Trucker. The two roles are the stellar opposite in budget, in style, and in its depiction of women. In Made of Honor, Monaghan plays the sweet-faced, well-dressed object of Dempsey’s affection. She’s an archetype of male desire–the beautiful best buddy who is suddenly desirable after it is too late to win her. Her perfection is only noticed by the male lead after she becomes unattainable. In other words, she is “the Girl” as depicted in current Hollywood movies–an idealized character who is ancillary to the male lead. At best, she is the goal to be obtained; at worst, a victim to be protected.  By contrast, Diane is neither perfect nor a victim. Though it is difficult to mask Monaghan’s beauty, she is not glamorous, well-dressed, or well-coifed. Hair has always been a major signifier of beauty and glamour in Hollywood movies, going all the way back to the silent era. Depicting Diane’s hair as uncombed and unstyled tells us instantly that she does not dress to be viewed by men. Indeed for much of the movie, she dresses like a man in faded t-shirts, dusty jeans, and cowboy boots.

In some scenes, Mottern undermines the way gender roles are typically depicted in commercial Hollywood films. Trucker opens with Diane having sex with someone she picked up to merely service her needs. She’s on top and in control, and afterward, her nice-looking “date” wants to exchange e-mails or phone numbers, but she brushes him off, anxious to get back on the road. I have seen this type of scene enacted before, or used as the fodder for jokes in adolescent comedies– but it is typically the male who can’t wait to beat a hasty retreat after nailing the girl. In another scene, Diane flies out of a motel room after two teenage boys cause an injury to her son in the parking lot of convenience store. She is clad only in her underwear and t-shirt. Generally, in scenes in which the female lead is dressed in her underwear, she is depicted to her best advantage in glamorous lighting effects, full makeup, and provocative poses, but in this scene, Diane marches in a masculine stride across a freeway and into the parking lot of the store, where she efficiently knocks the vinegar out of the two teens. The teens are afraid of her, not ogling her state of semi-dress. Afterward, she buys a toothbrush from the convenience store, completely unself-conscious about her lack of pants.

truckermottern

DIRECTOR JAMES MOTTERN

Gender roles are also reversed with the two male characters, Runner and Leonard, who are both more nurturing than the two women, Diane and Jenny Bell. Whether due to personality or circumstances, neither woman wants to be the boy’s parent, but that does not make them unlikable or wrong.  According to Monaghan, there was a line that didn’t make it into the final version of the screenplay in which Diane explains, “There are about a billion women on the planet. I guess one or two of them are not cut out for motherhood.”  But, that’s not a truism you will find in Hollywood films.

As she comes to the realization that she must take care of her child, Diane adjusts to her situation but does not change her occupation. She takes more short-haul loads instead of long-hauls so she can be home at the end of the day. As a bond forms between mother and child, Diane softens but does not weaken. Mottern spares us the clichéd or sentimental dialogue that one might expect in a film about motherhood; instead he notes Diane’s attitude adjustment via her costuming and makeup. About two-thirds of the way through the film, she sports a necklace around her neck—a feminine touch at odds with the dark, faded t-shirts and boot-cut jeans. In the final scene, she has combed her hair, pulling part of it back in a clip, and she wears a colorful blouse and denim skirt. However, with her cleaned-up appearance comes one of the perils of being a woman in a man’s world—attempted sexual assault. In other words, her world is not better because she learns to accept part of her feminine nature.

truckerhair2

MONAGHAN LEARNED TO DRIVE A BIG RIG FOR THE ROLE.

In an interview, a less-than-knowing member of the press asked Monaghan if she would have been cast if this had been a studio production. She wisely answered that no studio would have made this film precisely because the character “is her own man” and runs counter to the narrow depictions of women on the screen today. Depicting a woman who is completely uninterested in the rewards and rigors of motherhood defies Hollywood convention ever since the Production Code mandated that all female leads had to be marriage-minded and family-oriented.

I became a fan of Monaghan when I read that she not only learned how to drive an 18-wheeler but also how to drop and hook a load. She actually got her CDL (commercial driver’s license, for those of you who have not worked in a truck stop) so she could understand what Diane found so irresistible about the road. It was an important part of the character’s identity. Diane is frequently shot from the inside of the truck’s cab at peace on the open road—at once untethered to the confines of a conventional lifestyle yet isolated from the warmth of a family. She reminded me of the truckers I knew back in the day, with their outrageous stories about the road, their endless struggle to take the biggest load in the shortest haul for the most money, and the loneliness they carried like a badge of honor.

I dedicate this article to them.

36 Responses ‘Trucker’–Another Great Movie You’ll Never See
Posted By debbe : October 19, 2009 3:36 pm

loved this. I have been reading about this movie…and the lack of distribution… so it was good to read about the movie. I think your take is insightful and I hope that it will come somewhere in Phx… thanks for illuminating this suzidoll.

Posted By debbe : October 19, 2009 3:36 pm

loved this. I have been reading about this movie…and the lack of distribution… so it was good to read about the movie. I think your take is insightful and I hope that it will come somewhere in Phx… thanks for illuminating this suzidoll.

Posted By Brock James : October 19, 2009 4:46 pm

wonderful! hope it reaches DVD soon, or ever. btw i think you should smash a poster of some OTHER movie over people’s heads….i’m sure you have a few in mind.

Posted By Brock James : October 19, 2009 4:46 pm

wonderful! hope it reaches DVD soon, or ever. btw i think you should smash a poster of some OTHER movie over people’s heads….i’m sure you have a few in mind.

Posted By realvsreel : October 19, 2009 6:49 pm

Great writeup on this movie. Saw it last friday at Laemmle’s in LA and after there was a q&a with the director, Michelle and Jimmy…they were really funny. Did a little research, the DVD comes out January 12th. Yay!

Posted By realvsreel : October 19, 2009 6:49 pm

Great writeup on this movie. Saw it last friday at Laemmle’s in LA and after there was a q&a with the director, Michelle and Jimmy…they were really funny. Did a little research, the DVD comes out January 12th. Yay!

Posted By medusamorlock : October 19, 2009 8:47 pm

Wow. This movie sounds amazing. The non pro-motherhood theme sounds like a refreshing change-of-pace. Thanks so much for giving it some much-deserved attention, and setting us all out on a quest to see it. At least Nathan Fillion has dedicated fans who will seek it out, too.

I also love your memories of the truckers from your past.

At the very least, there are several female-oriented cable networks who, if they had an ounce of smarts, would pick this up as a premiere. When I think of the millions and millions and millions of dollars that one of my former cable network employers used to throw away to produce completely horrible hackneyed TV movies, the fact that something like this has to struggle for financing is hard to swallow.

Can’t wait to see this! Wonderful post, Suzi!

Posted By medusamorlock : October 19, 2009 8:47 pm

Wow. This movie sounds amazing. The non pro-motherhood theme sounds like a refreshing change-of-pace. Thanks so much for giving it some much-deserved attention, and setting us all out on a quest to see it. At least Nathan Fillion has dedicated fans who will seek it out, too.

I also love your memories of the truckers from your past.

At the very least, there are several female-oriented cable networks who, if they had an ounce of smarts, would pick this up as a premiere. When I think of the millions and millions and millions of dollars that one of my former cable network employers used to throw away to produce completely horrible hackneyed TV movies, the fact that something like this has to struggle for financing is hard to swallow.

Can’t wait to see this! Wonderful post, Suzi!

Posted By robert regan : October 21, 2009 12:31 pm

From the movies’ beginnings, the great stars have always been people who do not remind us of anyone else. It is too soon to call Michelle Monaghan great, but she is unique.

Posted By robert regan : October 21, 2009 12:31 pm

From the movies’ beginnings, the great stars have always been people who do not remind us of anyone else. It is too soon to call Michelle Monaghan great, but she is unique.

Posted By abolderwoman : October 21, 2009 12:35 pm

THANKS for this, otherwise I would not have known about this film. It’s now on the ‘do not miss’ list, thanks to your terrific piece.

Posted By abolderwoman : October 21, 2009 12:35 pm

THANKS for this, otherwise I would not have known about this film. It’s now on the ‘do not miss’ list, thanks to your terrific piece.

Posted By Subhan Zia : October 21, 2009 4:18 pm

sounds interesting

Posted By Subhan Zia : October 21, 2009 4:18 pm

sounds interesting

Posted By april lemesh : October 21, 2009 5:09 pm

Does anyone remember the name of a recent TCM movie with Ida Lupino that was about the Bronte sisters? Thanks for any response.

Posted By april lemesh : October 21, 2009 5:09 pm

Does anyone remember the name of a recent TCM movie with Ida Lupino that was about the Bronte sisters? Thanks for any response.

Posted By ZZMike : October 21, 2009 5:17 pm

It’s opening in a small theater near here. I still haven’t seen a preview. The thing that caught me eye was Nathan Filion – I’d just seen a re-screening of Firefly.

Speaking of women in strong roles, I saw a preview the other day of a story about a mother who “adopts” a big black kid. (I can’t remember the title or the actress – and it’s probably for one of those movies that won’t open till next June (because I can’t find it on IMDB either). In this role, the lead lady is a regular Clint Eastwood type.

But we still turn out in droves to see things like “Zombieland”, “Surrogates”, “Cirque du Freak”, “Capitalism”, …

And I read recently that Sony is holding off buying any new scripts for a while.

Posted By ZZMike : October 21, 2009 5:17 pm

It’s opening in a small theater near here. I still haven’t seen a preview. The thing that caught me eye was Nathan Filion – I’d just seen a re-screening of Firefly.

Speaking of women in strong roles, I saw a preview the other day of a story about a mother who “adopts” a big black kid. (I can’t remember the title or the actress – and it’s probably for one of those movies that won’t open till next June (because I can’t find it on IMDB either). In this role, the lead lady is a regular Clint Eastwood type.

But we still turn out in droves to see things like “Zombieland”, “Surrogates”, “Cirque du Freak”, “Capitalism”, …

And I read recently that Sony is holding off buying any new scripts for a while.

Posted By morlockjeff : October 21, 2009 5:41 pm

April, the movie you asked about above is DEVOTION (1946). You can get a lot quicker answers on questions like this if you go to our message boards and ask some of the film buffs there at http://forums.tcm.com/jive/tcm/index.jspa

You’ll need to sign up if you’re not already a member

Posted By morlockjeff : October 21, 2009 5:41 pm

April, the movie you asked about above is DEVOTION (1946). You can get a lot quicker answers on questions like this if you go to our message boards and ask some of the film buffs there at http://forums.tcm.com/jive/tcm/index.jspa

You’ll need to sign up if you’re not already a member

Posted By Michael Corcoran : October 21, 2009 6:26 pm

Wonderful piece!

I’ve been intrigued by the depth and intensity of Michelle’s work ever since seeing her in GONE BABY GONE, and the mistreatment of great indie films by the Hollywood distribution system is one of my biggest pet peeves (and the subject of many soapbox rants).

Also, I’ve always enjoyed your ability to “get meta” without becoming bogged down in jargon or excessive sociopolitical axe-grinding. You’re definitely one of my role models when it comes to writing about film and culture.

Posted By Michael Corcoran : October 21, 2009 6:26 pm

Wonderful piece!

I’ve been intrigued by the depth and intensity of Michelle’s work ever since seeing her in GONE BABY GONE, and the mistreatment of great indie films by the Hollywood distribution system is one of my biggest pet peeves (and the subject of many soapbox rants).

Also, I’ve always enjoyed your ability to “get meta” without becoming bogged down in jargon or excessive sociopolitical axe-grinding. You’re definitely one of my role models when it comes to writing about film and culture.

Posted By AL : October 21, 2009 6:44 pm

It’s always great to see actors in a movie where they can expand their range and leap above the boxes we put them in. Some of my favorite examples of this would be DeNiro in “Midnight Run”, Pacino in “Donnie Brasco”, Ben Affleck in “Changing Lanes”, and Heath Ledger with “Brokeback Mountain”, and *again* with “The Dark Knight”.

Posted By AL : October 21, 2009 6:44 pm

It’s always great to see actors in a movie where they can expand their range and leap above the boxes we put them in. Some of my favorite examples of this would be DeNiro in “Midnight Run”, Pacino in “Donnie Brasco”, Ben Affleck in “Changing Lanes”, and Heath Ledger with “Brokeback Mountain”, and *again* with “The Dark Knight”.

Posted By Potato22 : October 21, 2009 9:04 pm

that is awesome
what a writer you are
do you like pie?
i do
hey, i was just wondering, what is your actual favorite movie?
you got some skills
WOW

Posted By Potato22 : October 21, 2009 9:04 pm

that is awesome
what a writer you are
do you like pie?
i do
hey, i was just wondering, what is your actual favorite movie?
you got some skills
WOW

Posted By giveitasecondlook : October 21, 2009 10:09 pm

I’m going to look for this film. I never worked at a truck stop but in the summer between college years I did work at a factory with many immigrants and would stop every morning at a truck stop on my way to the 12 hour shift for coffee. While I don’t think I would ever want to spend my life in a factory I cherish some of the experiences I had at the factory and the people I met. It was a great experience to be a fairly shy white girl with very minimal Spanish skills working solely with Guatemalan, Laotian, Mexican and Chinese immigrants. I learned so much from each and every person I worked with, they all taught me more than many of my college instructors.

Posted By giveitasecondlook : October 21, 2009 10:09 pm

I’m going to look for this film. I never worked at a truck stop but in the summer between college years I did work at a factory with many immigrants and would stop every morning at a truck stop on my way to the 12 hour shift for coffee. While I don’t think I would ever want to spend my life in a factory I cherish some of the experiences I had at the factory and the people I met. It was a great experience to be a fairly shy white girl with very minimal Spanish skills working solely with Guatemalan, Laotian, Mexican and Chinese immigrants. I learned so much from each and every person I worked with, they all taught me more than many of my college instructors.

Posted By andreanetta : October 22, 2009 1:31 am

i want to see this film! it seems really intersting, maybe one day i’ll go rent it or something.

Posted By andreanetta : October 22, 2009 1:31 am

i want to see this film! it seems really intersting, maybe one day i’ll go rent it or something.

Posted By brian booth : October 22, 2009 8:02 am

look forword to seeing it on d.v.d.and on sky movies.I still remember watching the movie with Stanley Baker in about truckers who endangered their lives doing their job.at the local cinema,in the late fiftees.

Posted By brian booth : October 22, 2009 8:02 am

look forword to seeing it on d.v.d.and on sky movies.I still remember watching the movie with Stanley Baker in about truckers who endangered their lives doing their job.at the local cinema,in the late fiftees.

Posted By Chris Hamman : October 22, 2009 8:49 am

Excellent review of a film I will probably never get to see. I am so tired of the crap out there that I have stopped going except for an obligatory “once a year” its still out there film scene. Don’t have cable, rent maybe three from BLockbuster annually. But, when I read such prose as your review, I realize there still is beauty in the world.

Posted By Chris Hamman : October 22, 2009 8:49 am

Excellent review of a film I will probably never get to see. I am so tired of the crap out there that I have stopped going except for an obligatory “once a year” its still out there film scene. Don’t have cable, rent maybe three from BLockbuster annually. But, when I read such prose as your review, I realize there still is beauty in the world.

Posted By AmyH : October 22, 2009 1:57 pm

Sounds a bit like Over the Top (one of my faves and a highly underrated flick) with a gender swap for the main character, albeit with a more serious bent. I’d like to see Trucker if I ever get the chance. Thanks for pointing me to it. :)

Posted By AmyH : October 22, 2009 1:57 pm

Sounds a bit like Over the Top (one of my faves and a highly underrated flick) with a gender swap for the main character, albeit with a more serious bent. I’d like to see Trucker if I ever get the chance. Thanks for pointing me to it. :)

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