Note: this review of Roadrunner references suicide and suicidal thoughts.
It’ll take time before we can truly comprehend the magnitude of Anthony Bourdain’s sudden, devastating death. The world-famous, world-traveling chef, author, adventurer, and television personality felt like a confidant to anyone and seemingly everyone. His unabashedly frank, yet literary way of talking and writing was always a welcome presence, either on the page or the screen. His explorative appetite—both mentally and physically—was palpable and engrossing. And his punk-rock, no-bullshit attitude was endlessly cool.
One of the reasons why his suicide remains so endlessly grave is that it escapes all known logic, and it seems somewhat antithetical to his whole demeanor. Here’s a man who was willing to tell it how it was, no matter where he was or who he was with. With his passing, it’s easy to feel like he was hiding his pain, keeping it away from the world at large.
But in truth, the sadness was always there.
It might’ve been painted through morose humor and acidic comments, but his immense sadness was sorely key to his personality. It was only truly heightened and highlighted when he was gone.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, the latest celebrity documentary from director Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?), doesn’t shy away from the sorrow. Like the documentary’s departed subject, it’s explicit and open about the lingering devastation of Bourdain’s eternal absence. The documentary’s varied subjects, all of whom are still wrestling with the intensity of the man’s self-inflicted passing, try to mirror Bourdain’s candor and credence, hoping to capture the man’s ruthless honesty, but also his immense inquisitiveness about the larger world that felt seemingly so near and yet so very, very far away. Both tangible and intangible, all at once.
At its best, Roadrunner is a celebratory examination of a man many knew, but only a select few truly understood. At its worst, it’s a spiteful, credulous opportunity to mine the lasting goodwill of its late title figure. The movie never quite settles into a particular groove, feeling appropriately acidic and analytic, but also inappropriately insisting and insensitive. It doesn’t provide any lasting catharsis, but it does offer some investing, soulful, and intensely emotional moments of soul-searching.
As deliberately macabre as Roadrunner can inherently be, there’s also something oddly life-affirming about it as well.
It’s an indelicate balance that doesn’t result in the definitive movie about this beloved man, but it does provide some moments of strange splendor. Either deliberately or accidentally, it’s a movie that gives you a new lease on life, but it’s also a movie that makes you question why we feel such intense needs to get inside the heads of people—namely celebrities—that we’ll ultimately never get the chance to know, befriend, or understand on any personal level.
Perhaps the oddest decision in Roadrunner comes in the beginning. The first forty-something years of Anthony Bourdain’s life are overlooked in favor of his first major brush with fame. With the surprise success of his tell-all memoir, the immensely delectable Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Bourdain is shot into the stratosphere.
He’s the unexpected face of the hidden dark side of the restaurant industry, the verbose underdog who’ll let you know all the kitchen’s delicious and dirty secrets. He’s an overnight sensation who becomes a television icon with the similarly explorative and revealing run of food-based travel shows like A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown. Unlike his contemporaries, Bourdain favored a cinematic lens and an open mind. He wanted to present the world in an honest, but also grandiose fashion, letting us feel like we got an immersive, fulfilling, and satisfying look at the various corners of our wide world.
Bourdain’s televised era gets the main focus.
From a documentarian perspective, that makes sense. It’s where the filmmakers had the most footage to work with, particularly as they combed through thousands of hours of archived dailies to put this two-hour film together. By largely ignoring the first half of Bourdain’s life, however, we don’t get a complete look at what made him such a revelation.
We’re only given snippets of his working-class upbringing, his troubled years as a low-level cook, and his bitter battle with drug addiction. The choice to overlook these chapters of his life is perplexing, especially when the movie wants to paint an honest, sympathetic, and multi-dimensional portrayal of this burdened figure. This would’ve resulted in a much longer picture, but its absence and avoidance is felt throughout. That’s especially true when we get to the more tabloid-esque, talking-heads-friendly segments in the second half.
In ways both fitting and odd, Roadrunner is a movie that’s preoccupied with the nature of death, the solemn and haunting permanence of one’s everlasting sleep, and our disquieting inability to make peace with our own bleak and restless mortality. From the movie’s opening moments, we’re meant to wrestle with the tender bitterness of Bourdain’s suicide, the senseless departure of one of our greatest commentators.
In the end, we must accept that we’ll never know what drove Bourdain away or what pushed him over the edge.
The tragedy of his death—which contains magnitudes—is that we’ll simply never get an explanation, an understanding of what was going on in his head during his final moments. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying to find, or make, their own answers.
It’s understandable that Roadrunner would be so open, combative, and even darkly comedic about the morbid topic at the center of this somber finale to an incredible life story. Anthony Bourdain was never shy about discussing his demons, even (or especially) in gallows-humor fashion. He was often impressively open about the nagging, biting, and unsettled thoughts that bounced around his own morose headspace.
As noted before, it was one of the keys to his success; a prickly ingredient that gave his decades-spanning fame something of an intriguingly sour and also oddly desirable taste. In that sense, it’s easy to see why Neville and his team were so eager to find out what led up to Bourdain’s final moments, the day that robbed us of his endearing impact.
But when you try to find answers to questions that probably shouldn’t be asked, you’re fighting a losing war.
There’s a perverse attitude to the final act of Roadrunner that hasn’t sat well with me. Where the entirety of the film favors the curiosity and appetite that was rooted in Bourdain’s volcanic core, there’s also a toxic and unsettling need to find some sort of explanation, some point of destruction that paved the way for his untimely end.
As the movie itself will often note, there’s no knowing the unknowable. Bourdain’s death will always be tragic because there’s no way we’ll ever find out the “reason” why the celebrity took his own life. This segment reminded me of the garish, inquisitive prodding that often haunts Kurt Cobain’s legacy. The endless hours that have been spent trying to find some probable cause for why he took his own life.
The comparisons to be made between Courtney Love’s media treatment and how the movie views Asia Argento, Bourdain’s last lover, are sorely unavoidable. However you may feel about the women themselves, there’s no decent sense in trying to point fingers. It doesn’t matter. These men are dead and will remain dead, forever. No “cause” will bring peace.
For all its ugly, exploitative instincts, there are plenty of moments of gentle grace to be found in this probing documentary.
Anthony Bourdain was such an inspiring, intellectual, and winningly irreverent man. His impact on many people worldwide remains, and this movie doesn’t dishonor his legacy. It’s a hard-attitude, introspectively soulful documentary that wants to give us a rough-and-tumble examination of a hard-knocked guy who couldn’t win his fight with his greatest enemy: himself.
In that sense, thankfully, Roadrunner isn’t a hagiography. It’s not attempting to make the man a saint. Rather, it’s well aware of his demons and it wants to wrestle with them. However, in the art of dancing with the devil, you’re bringing your own hell. The depths of Bourdain’s loss remain ever present, even (and especially) for those of us (including myself) who found themselves more enamored with his hard-shelled humanity when he was sadly no longer with us.
Bourdain was always one to talk about death, and in that respect, this movie has a lot to say about his passing. But is it saying the right things? Ultimately, it’s hard to say, but in the end, it’s better to let Bourdain speak for himself.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and the Samaritans Statewide Hotline (call or text) at 1-877-870-HOPE (4673). Call2Talk can be accessed by calling Massachusetts 211 or 508-532-2255 (or text c2t to 741741).