Trucker (2008)

Director/Screenwriter: James Mottern

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2010

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Trucker opens with sex. Its main character, Diane (Michelle Monaghan), is on top of a young man—a busboy at a nearby restaurant—and climaxes. After taking a few moments to catch her breath, she rolls out of bed and moves into the bathroom to wash and start getting dressed. As she moves about the motel room, getting her boots on and gathering her belongings, the young man assures her that he really likes her and tries to entice her to have dinner with him at his restaurant (“I get a really good discount.”). She says she really needs to get to Reno and leans down to give him a quick kiss. “Don’t you want my e-mail?” he asks. She just looks at him with incredulous condescension and walks out the door.

Diane knows her way around a big rig, which we see as she pulls up to a factory bay door, unhooks the trailer of goods from the truck she owns, and drives back to her home in a “white trash” town near Los Angeles. She walks into her nicely furnished house and crumples into bed for a long sleep that she reluctantly leaves when her neighbor Runner (Nathan Fillion) invites her to have drinks at the VFW: “It’s 70s night.” The pair gets smashed, and she drags him out of his truck and onto the front porch of his home. His wife and brother-in-law Rick (Bryce Johnson)—a lout who has warned her earlier about spending time with a married man and aggressively “suggested” that he would be a better companion—come out to find Runner laid flat on his back with a pillow under his head. Diane has taken off for home.

In the morning, Diane answers a knock on her door. It is Jenni (Joey Lauren Adams), her ex-husband Leonard’s (Benjamin Bratt) girlfriend. Diane complains that Jenni should have called first, only to be scolded that Diane has not returned her calls or letters. Leonard is in the hospital, and Jenni has to leave town to attend her mother’s funeral. She hands over 11-year-old Peter (Jimmy Bennett), the son Diane had with Leonard, and says Diane will have to look after him for three or four weeks. Diane argues that she’s on the road all the time, but to no avail. The mother and son who barely know each other must make the best of things until Leonard is released. Only Leonard is dying and is hoping Diane will make room in her life for Peter. This is the central problem with which the rest of the film concerns itself.

Trucker tells a familiar kind of story, in fact, one reminiscent of another Ebertfest movie directed by Joey Lauren Adams, Come Early Morning. Like Ashley Judd in the latter film, Monaghan carries herself with a stoic swagger and a sexual assertiveness that ensure we know we’ve got a skittish animal in our corral. Unlike Come Early Morning, Trucker doesn’t suggest that Diane is damaged by a frigid parent-child relationship. Instead, Diane is much like her mythological namesake, Diana the Huntress. Capable, free, unchained to any man, instinctual, Diane seems more a creature than a human. “(Leonard) wanted me to do things I couldn’t do,” she tells Peter when he asks her why she left. In other words, he wanted to domesticate her, or at least that’s how Diane saw it. Indeed, director James Mottern mentioned in the Q&A after the film that he made a documentary about mustangs and had those beautiful and wild horses in mind when he wrote the character of Diane.

Monaghan and the wonderful Jimmy Bennett show the gradual steps mother and son take toward each other. Peter learns from Runner that Diane is great on a baseball diamond. She tries to teach him to hit, but he cowers from her pitches. “I’m afraid of you,” he says, and she pitches the next ball right into his leg, pleading that she didn’t mean it. Indeed, at this point, Diane does aim her arrow a bit haphazardly. But, as a child, Peter also needs some taming. He tells her that because he didn’t bring his toothbrush, he uses his finger instead. She considers that uncivilized. He demands money from her to buy a toothbrush at the convenience store across the street, where he is roughed up by two older boys. As soon as she sees blood on his face, she runs out of the room in only her t-shirt and panties and slaps the teens like a mother bear. In a later scene, Diane leans into her sleeping son and sniffs him up and down, as though remembering his newborn smells to bond with him.

The film, generally gentle, indulges in a moment of violence—an attempted rape of Diane that allows her son to come to her defense. I thought this was a bit of a cheap shot to cement their relationship. I also thought the nonsexual, four-year love affair between Diane and Runner strained credulity. While it seems perfectly reasonable that Diane would avoid any entanglement, let alone with a married man, it’s unlikely a wife would put up with her husband spending the kind of time we see him spend with a woman as attractive as Diane. But Runner’s wife is glimpsed once and never seen again, an omission that took me a bit out of the story.

Other omissions, however, work beautifully. For example, Diane, suffering emotionally, sits in a truckers’ lounge. Another trucker eyes her; she returns his gaze. He gets up and leaves the lounge, and a beat later, Diane does the same. The next scene shows Diane showering in the truckers’ facility with a concentrated look on her face. This is all we need to know she’s had another one-night stand, but is concerned about how she has been conducting her life.

The final scene is written as close to perfection as I can imagine. Diane has a choice to make, one she makes nonverbally. Peter asks her to say what she wants, a simple line that takes Diane out of her animalism and encourages her to exercise that one, most human ability—speech.

Q&A with James Mottern and Michelle Monaghan

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