Queen Latifah goes into Mama Bear mode in this entertaining thriller.
End of the Road is now streaming on Netflix.
For a lot of families, spending part of their summer crammed together inside a car traveling somewhere far away is a rite of passage that ultimately challenges even the calmest of nerves. End of the Road takes that basic premise and layers on the agitations of a forced family relocation due to a tragic death, a route detour into racist pockets of the Southwest, and just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Channeling similar vibes to The River Wild and Breakdown, End of the Road pits Queen Latifah against a series of escalating events that threaten the safety of her family, all of which she stares down like a Grizzly with no time for any nonsense. Director Millicent Shelton delivers a popcorn movie with some applause-worthy twists that works both as an affecting family drama and a tight little thriller.
Opening in Los Angeles on moving day, Brenda Freeman (Queen Latifah) is a recent widower forced to sell the family home for financial reasons and relocate her two kids, teen Kelly (Mychala Lee) and the younger Cameron (Shaun Dixon), to Houston. Along for the ride is her good-hearted but underachieving brother Reggie (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges). All are still nursing the fresh pain of the death of Jake, Brenda’s husband, with everyone making it known to her they are mad about the move and blame her for having to make the hard choices. Beleaguered but determined to have her family get closer on this trip, Brenda tries to bond with them as the arid skies of Arizona and New Mexico inch them closer to a new chapter. As expected, things do not go smoothly, starting with typical squabbles and then unexpected detours that place the Black Freeman family right in the path of unwelcoming patches of the very white Southwest. Bad to worse comes with a stay at a cheap hotel where a gunshot is heard in the room next door and Brenda, as a licensed nurse, goes to help and finds a man bleeding out from the neck. He turns out to be a bag man for a local crime boss named Cook and Reg makes the stupid call to swipe a bag filled with cash from the killer’s room. Of course, the baddies come looking for their money and even when Brenda tries to make it right, the dominoes of bad luck keep falling and put her entire family in mortal jeopardy.
End of the Road could have been a much dumber movie, like a whole lot of action thrillers tend to be, but screenwriters Christopher J. Moore (House Out of Order) and David Loughery (The Intruder) are able to fuse together a warm family drama with a thriller that seeds its competent characters and story logic very well, so the big turns feel earned and plausibly established. As a heroine, Brenda’s skills come from being a military brat trained well by her dad and then from her chosen career as a trauma nurse. Plus, having recently nursed her husband through cancer and left alone to shoulder her family’s fate means she’s a woman who knows how to take necessary action. So it makes sense as the situations intensify and get increasingly out of hand, Brenda can retain a cool head while everything is melting down around her.
The script also gives the family plenty of scenes that ground them as a foursome who irritate but deeply love one another. From their funny car banter to a tearful conversation between Brenda and Cam, or a heated blowup between Reg and Brenda about his perennial position as the family “screw up,” the Freemans are given the time to feel real, which is necessary to get us behind them as the situational crap really hits the fan. They are a smart family who at times make some human mistakes but their bond is unshakable and that’s worth watching.
End of the Road also lets the Freemans have agency in their own story. On the road, they have to face some unexpected, fraught moments of racism that shock the two kids raised in multicultural Los Angeles. But those moments are used to illustrate Brenda’s grace under pressure as well as her moral compass in action, which she carries through from her husband. There’s purpose in her choices, which then extends to the choices made by her kids and Reg. That means they ultimately choose how they save themselves, which gives the whole film some extra weight and depth.
Shelton also has a competent eye for using the sweeping desert locations to her advantage. Sometimes her lighting choices are a little too dramatic with night scenes featuring colored gels and dramatic placement that looks like it belongs in a theme park instead of a trailer park canyon or a dark wood. But that’s nitpicking when she gets it right staging her action beats, especially a few tense standoffs that feature Latifah giving it her emotional all. Plus, Shelton’s not afraid of throwing in plenty of unexpected graphic violence, so be warned that the R rating is earned but plenty satisfying, especially in the last 20 minutes.