The Road to Galena delivers little more than reductive bumpkin caricatures and well-trod narrative arcs.
The Road to Galena, the feature debut from writer-director Joe Hall, plays a bit like the novice filmmaker desperately wanting to cross Tennessee Williams with a standard-issue Hallmark flick. Why anyone would even want to attempt such a thing isn’t exactly clear, and the end result is roughly as successful as that oddball description suggests. Indeed, in both look and tenor, the film feels like a middling entry in the God’s Not Dead series, except sans any religious themes and with the occasional F-bomb thrown in to prove adultness. There’s something both strangely endearing and outright offensive in the film’s blatant pandering to its target audience, those struggling, working-class, salt-of-the-earth folks who harbor a deep distrust of anyone in a suit or those who refuse to listen to country music. That’s not to speak ill of those individuals reflected in The Road to Galena, but only the way they have been turned into cruel caricatures by a filmmaker who seems to mistake stereotypes for fact.
Max Steel star Ben Winchell — imagine if that was your CV — stars as Cole Baird, a good ol’ boy growing up in the small farming community of Galena, Maryland. Cole’s dream is to buy some land and start a family with his girlfriend Elle (Aimee Teegarden) upon graduating high school, but his blowhard pop, local bank manager John (Jay O. Sanders), thinks such a life is pathetic and worthless, so he sends Cole away to college, where he ultimately gets into Georgetown Law School. Meanwhile, Elle hooks up with Cole’s best pal, Jack (Will Brittain), who has stayed in Galena and taken over the family farm, causing all sorts of turmoil in the friend group, because what this two-hour film needed was some relationship drama. Cut ahead a few years, and Elle and Jack are married with two kids, while Cole is a big-city lawyer in a fancy Washington D.C. law firm, shacking up with the social status-obsessed Sarah (Alisa Allapach). Jack can’t catch a break, what with the bank breathing down his neck, while Cole is a millionaire, living in the lap of luxury. But the question remains: is Cole happy? At one point, Jack confronts Cole, point blank asking him, “Who are you, man,” a query that so rattles our churlish protagonist that it makes one wonder if he was ever able to catch Moonlight on Netflix over the past few years.
The Road to Galena paints itself as an ode to those individuals still clinging to the farmlands of America, while duplicitous bankers and faceless corporations work overtime to take that which never belonged to them, all in the name of a quick buck. While such stories are all too common and tragic in the real world, they are certainly done no favors by narratives such as this, filled with characters whose traits and motivations are insultingly easy to categorize: rich and successful equals bad, poor and humble equals good. Jack’s initially flawed financial strategizing is what ultimately causes his family’s undoing, but it’s Cole’s father who is forced to take the blame, because he approved the loan. For good measure, the man also reveals himself to be a monster who resents his son’s existence, because bankers, am I right? Cole is a jerk because he pursues a job at which he is apparently a borderline genius, becoming a partner in less than a decade, but this makes it difficult for him to come down and help his friend on the weekends. Also, if you have a lot of money, you’re probably going to become an alcoholic. That it takes Cole literally 20 years — cue the terrible middle-aged prosthetics — to realize that you can be a lawyer and still own a small piece of farmland makes one wonder how he ever even managed to graduate high school, let alone law school, while Jack is ultimately turned into a bland martyr.
Hall goes out of his way to visually express the contrast between city and country life, imagery of wet and muddy earth juxtaposed with steel skyscrapers and concrete sidewalks. The film certainly looks like a Ford truck commercial, all golden-hued, sweeping aerial shots of gorgeous farmland, while the city is rendered cold and blue. If one were to take a shot every time a God’s-eye establishing shot of Galena was used, alcohol poisoning would hit by the 20-minute mark. The movie also boasts a strange habit of including close-ups of random items that the viewer naturally assumes will pay off later, but Hall is above your fancy foreshadowing, thank you very much. Ultimately, no one is done any favors by The Road to Galena, least of all its audience members; if only Hall had learned that being this cruelly condescending is a rich man’s game.
Published as part of Before We Vanish — July 2022.