Every couple years, we’ll get a movie in which a well-off white man is going through an existential crisis. And what’s the best cure for that condition? Why, going overseas and finding yourself by traipsing around some foreign land whose exotic locales and colorful locals will help teach you valuable life lessons, of course. As a rule, these movies tend to be horrifyingly patronizing. But not always! In honor of the release of this weekend’s A Hologram for the King — in which Tom Hanks’ befuddled American businessman finds fulfillment and love in Saudi Arabia — here are five films in which that tired old convention actually produces something moving. These characters must travel great distances to discover themselves; you can just watch them from your couch.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
In this underrated Wes Anderson comedy-drama, three brothers are on a journey of self-discovery — and unlike other films on this list, they’re going on the trip specifically for enlightenment. Owen Wilson plays Francis, who, after being involved in a serious motorcycle accident, decides he wants to reunite with his distant siblings Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman). He organizes a meticulously planned trip through India — one which neither of his brothers is that thrilled to undertake. Inspired by classic Indian cinema like Pather Panchali, The Darjeeling Limited consciously spoofs the “white dude goes to a foreign country” narrative trope, resulting in a film that mocks Westerners’ arrogant belief that a distant land can somehow cure their selfish, self-inflicted problems. (Available on Amazon Video.)
The Passenger (1975)
Many men have dreamed of dropping everything and starting over. Jack Nicholson’s discontented journalist does exactly that in this enigmatic character piece: While on assignment in North Africa, he decides to take on the identity of a dead man. On the road — and on the run from people from his old life trying to find him — he acquires a lover who’s equally rootless (the beautiful Maria Schneider, fresh from Last Tango in Paris) as they both try to reinvent themselves. This English-language drama from Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni shows how easy it is to break away from one’s old identity — but also the spiritual consequences of becoming a non-person.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Loosely inspired by Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now stars Martin Sheen as Willard, an American special ops officer sent down the river during the Vietnam War to terminate a colonel who’s gone rogue. As in Joseph Conrad’s namesake book, the journey in this Francis Ford Coppola drama is even more important than the destination, as Willard and his team (including an incredibly young Laurence Fishburne) learn about the madness of war in general and the obscenity of the Vietnam conflict in particular. (Robert Duvall’s lunatic commander who likes to surf as much as he likes to fight remains one of the film’s nutty highlights.) Narrated by a grizzled, seen-it-all Willard, Apocalypse Now is a mad vision and it’s filled with gonzo performances. But it’s Sheen’s quietly fraying Willard who holds this ambitious, indulgent film together. His character goes on a mission, but he ends up learning more about himself than his target — and what he uncovers doesn’t make him happy. (Available on Amazon Video.)
The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Because Harrison Ford is so identified with Han Solo and Indiana Jones, it can be easy to forget the dramatic roles he’s essayed over the years. Perhaps the best — and certainly the gutsiest — of them is Allie Fox, a hippie-ish inventor who decides that American capitalism is corrupt and doomed to send the country toward catastrophe. He decides the only logical thing to do is pack up his wife (Helen Mirren) and kids (including River Phoenix) and live in the jungles of Central America. This, of course, is crazy — but what’s remarkable about The Mosquito Coast is how Ford almost makes you believe in his arrogant character’s deranged idea. Directed by Peter Weir, The Mosquito Coast subverts all the cinematic clichés of an American male going abroad to find himself: In this movie, the journey only brings hardship, which only strengthens our antihero’s belief that he’s doing the right thing. (Available on Amazon Video.)
Lost in Translation (2003)
Admittedly, writer-director Sofia Coppola’s melancholy comedy about an aging movie star (Bill Murray) and a restless college student (Scarlett Johansson) veers close to condescension in its depiction of modern-day Tokyo. (The city isn’t just alienating but, apparently, wackily foreign in the eyes of our American characters.) And yet, Lost in Translation is adept in showing how we can lose a sense of ourselves when we travel — especially if, like Murray’s Bob Harris, we feel so disenfranchised that we don’t really have a home anymore. If most cinematic journeys of self-discovery involve characters who discover something about themselves, Coppola’s sophomore effort flips that notion on its head. The best she can offer her two characters from very different walks of life is a few moments of connection that will, perhaps, keep them going as they travel down the uncertain roads that stretch out in front of them. (Available on Amazon Video.)
Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch. He is also a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Vulture as well as the author of six books, including a biography of Public Enemy.
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