Thesis: Can Sara ascend?
Inciting Incident: Sara and James hook up.
After a porch light party, Sara and James get to talking and then meander half-there into a bedroom. They get close before she reclines out of the moment. James asks -
“Are you okay?”
She doesn’t give an answer.
Sara’s a straight A student in rural Pennsylvania, but it has to change when she meets James, a thrill seeker who didn’t take the school route. He and his friends find ways to pass the hours, eating shrooms in caves, wringing out a blow of something from a Vicks inhaler. It’s a call to adventure that incites her obsession with something more, something she can’t access when sober.
Threshold: Sara takes shrooms.
Inside of a cave, Sara takes shrooms with James and his friends. There’s a spat between two guys, one who thinks the group always takes it a step to far. When he leaves Sara follows right after, but that’s when the drug wrinkles in.
Sara collides with a journey in chronological abandon where she finds herself at one of the gates of hell. Visions of her future mingle with glimpses of James, his destruction, and her inevitable narrative.
In a lot of ways, the threshold of Toad Road, is an inciting incident. Sara is given a taste of supernatural contact that leads to an imminent obsession. The glimpse takes hold of her.
Midpoint: Sara and James take acid and go on toad road.
Sara longs for supernatural touch and the drugs aren’t taking her there. The answer lies somewhere down Toad Road. James agrees to go down it. The six gates.
I: Feeling watched.
II: Hearing things.
III: Seeing things.
IV: Passing out.
V: No one’s gotten here.
VI: No one’s seen it.
VII: Something better than what’s here.
She douses her tongue with acid before kissing James. He takes her in and they delve.
Whether it’s a delusion or not, Sara engages with her idea of something better. It’s on acid, in the dark, within the woods.
Low Point: Sara goes missing.
James wakes up somewhere past the fourth gate, face down in the snow. Time lays out in an ambiguous moment. He was only out for what seems a day but months have passed by. James it out of a home. Sara’s missing.
The plot point is hard to nail down because it comes down to an interpretation of the narrative. From my perspective, James when he wakes up is within the fifth circle of hell that no one ever ‘sees,’ because they engage with it. The circle envelops their life to inflict pain. In the third act James’s addiction strengthen and his crawl forward towards a better life is strained down to a single moment of suffering. Months pass as James ingests vice after sedative to cope with his unattended pain.
He’s constantly visited by images of Sara that seem to toy with him, seem to narrate his stagnated existence from a place of higher power. Sara is still involved with her earthbound lover. She hasn’t ascended, and at the moment of her disappearance, it isn’t clear what happened.
Climax: Sara lets go of James, and ascends past the final gate.
She makes it clear –
“If you don’t sacrifice yourself, it’ll rip you apart. You have to let it take over you, and leave your old self there on the ground next to you, so you can finally reach then end.”
In the final moments of wrestling himself, James says –
“Everyone thinks I’m guilty, and I never, I never thought I was until you showed up. Am I?”
James has pruned in the suffering of the fifth circle. His lack of direction has him wander within the grasp of it. All the while the viewer watches him as if he’s in a cage. He doubles over with his paces.
This entire film we’ve been watching Sara’s life from James’s eyes, and now, we’re watching him from Sara’s. She recognizes that she needs to let go of James. He doesn’t have the ability to ascend through the gates of hell, and she allows herself to part with the rind of her former life.
This one was tricky. It’s rare to see a film’s structure fold itself around interpretation like this.
I started off writing the structure as this being James’s story, but as I progressed through the writeup, it became clear that James is only a lens. It’s about Sara. It’s about James judging Sara’s life, and it isn’t till the third act that everything turns around, where she has to determine whether she will ascend through the gates of hell, or go back home.
James is Sara’s former self, clawing his way through a life that sedates him into stagnation. No direction. A terrible cycle. This is one of the rare films where a character’s destructive cycle is solved by diving in the prayer that there is something better than this on the other side.
This is made all the more difficult by the real death of Sara by overdose. The film blooms with an empathetic mirror, of escaping a cycle simply on hope. I don’t mean religious implication. I mean to say that it would be loving world if downward spirals eventually fell into greater other sides.
As you pass through the sixth gate of hell, it begins to take over you. As you move
If you don’t sacrifice yourself, it’ll rip you apart. You have to let it take over you, and leave your old self there on the ground next to you, so you can finally reach then end.