Bless Jake Johnson. His affability, natural charm, and wit have carried many a film and TV series but perhaps have never been as evident, raw, and condensed as in Trent O’Donnell’s sublime little gem Ride the Eagle. At first glance, the feature, which Johnson co-wrote and co-produced, may seem like yet another granola indie about a middle-aged man reassessing his life. And it is. But there’s magic to it. By stripping the narrative, and its central performance, down to bare essentials, embellishment-free, the filmmaker and his star achieve a perfect symbiosis that builds towards a surprisingly powerful climax.
Johnsons plays Leif, a pothead bongo player who lives in a tiny cabin with his dog. After receiving the news that his estranged mother, Honey (Susan Sarandon), passed away, he travels to her stunning Yosemite cabin – which happens to have every one of its cabinets stuffed with bags of marijuana. Before Leif can legally inherit the property, he must complete a series of tasks, which the tongue-in-cheek Honey, in a move both old-school and very meta, has pre-recorded on a VHS tape.
“Before Leif can legally inherit the property, he must complete a series of tasks…”
His first instruction, entitled “Express Yourself,” involves a canoe, as well as breaking and entering. The second, “Love Is Important,” has him call ex-girlfriend Audrey (D’Arcy Carden), “the one that got away.” “Eat What You Kill” is supposed to teach Leif how to “be the predator” (he attempts to do so by throwing rocks at fish), and finally, there is “Green Lake,” wherein he embarks on an extraordinary hike.
Though skeptical at first, Leif learns Life Lessons as he completes his mother’s somewhat-odd to-do list. His connection with Audrey reignites and dies down. He receives bad news that his old cabin has to be torn down, and he’s kicked out of his band. A stalker in a yellow jacket leaves dead rabbits on the hood of his car. To top it all off, his beloved dog goes missing. Predictable stuff? Sure. But it all somehow coalesces into a full-fledged portrait of a man’s rediscovery of himself, of the lingering trails our parents leave behind, of aging and longing, of connection and alienation. If that final scene doesn’t have you reaching for the Kleenex, check your pulse, for you may be heartless.
"…a balm to the soul..."