Like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “He Went That Way” tells the story of an iconic artist struggling to adapt to changing audience tastes. Unlike those films, the actor in question is a monkey named Spanky.
In the late 1950s, Spanky dominated the variety show circuit with his mastery of the beloved mid-century comedic trope known as “monkeys doing things monkeys don’t typically do.” But in a post-Beatles America in 1964, family-friendly chimp hijackings aren’t enough to impress the Ed Sullivans and Perry Comos of the world. The monkey who was once the most popular TV star in America is now looking for gigs.
No one has paid a greater price for Spanky’s fall from grace than his handler, Jim (Zachary Quinto). A middle-aged man who has broken one of the cardinal rules of finance (“Never invest 100 percent of your assets in a family entertainment show centered on monkeys”), is now cruising Route 66 in a car that can a barely afford to make amends with a monkey he can barely afford to feed. But the road is not without its perks: he manages to avoid his wife who he barely speaks to and his creepy priest brother who owes him a lot of money.
Apart from the fact that “it stakes its future on the idea that monkeys will do it Never go out of style,” Jim is a pretty risk-averse kid. But when he sees a stunningly handsome 19-year-old hitchhiking, he throws caution to the wind and picks him up. His new traveling companion Bobby (Jacob Elordi) says that he’s heading to Chicago to reconnect with an old girlfriend – a narrative that begins to unravel when he pulls a gun on Jim.
Apparently, Bobby doesn’t As soon as wants to drive Jim to Chicago – he wanted to rob and most likely kill him. It’s his thing. The sociopathic teenager prowls the backroads of America in search of free rides, only to brutally murder anyone who shows him a hint of generosity. He takes Jim’s wallet and his—and him—precious ring Still has the courage to hitch a ride to Chicago.
He offers Jim a dangerous deal: safe passage to the Windy City in exchange for the return of his jewels and the safety of his chimpanzee. Since Jim has just lost pretty much everything he has in this world, he has no choice but to move on. What follows is a tense cross-country journey, underscored by the knowledge that Bobby could kill Jim (and Spanky) at any moment. Bobby continues to play psychotic games with Jim’s mind only to stop and pursue a genuine connection with him, before reverting back to psychological torture in the blink of an eye. As the two men get to know each other, the film so neatly shifts its focus to their relationship that it’s almost surprising when you remember that a monkey is involved.
Director Jeffrey Darling’s neon rendition of Roadside America is lavish to watch, and Elordi exudes the movie-star gravitas Bobby needs to lull Jim into his trap. But the relationship between the two men is never deep enough to be convincing. We’re bound to believe that Bobby’s willingness to overcome his sadistic nature is the result of some sort of inexplicable bond between the two men, but the connection never satisfactorily materializes.
A pile of indie film stills – long shots of lit cigarettes, a boy howling for joy out the window as he drives into the sunset, and the dreaded title card “Most of this really happened” – aren’t enough to save a film. competent but emotionally thin story.
But if nothing else, “He Went That Way” deserves credit for being the most earnest effort at reviving the ape-hijacking genre that the festival circuit has seen in years. For all the progress America has enjoyed since 1964, one metric we’ve undeniably lost ground on is “the amount of monkey movies released per year.” Spanky may be criminally underutilized, but the mere presence of him is a step in the right direction. If Darling’s film gets the ball rolling on an arthouse ape-chasing renaissance, all his sins will be forgiven.
“He Went That Way” premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.