If classic cinema teaches us anything it’s that the lives of enigmatic people can’t easily be summed up simply or easily. This is specifically true in the case of people who die enigmatic deaths. Charles Foster Kane has his rosebud but the truth and meaning of that secret died with him.
I suspect the same is true of the late Anthony Bourdain. The acclaimed chef, author and television host left a massive crater in his wake in 2018 when he took his own life.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, from director Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead), brings the life and death of the talented and beloved television to the big screen to explore just what kind of man he was and how his explosive and incredible life came to such an abrupt and painful end.
To be frank, I wasn’t familiar with Bourdain during his life. I’ve never been a particularly studious television watcher or kept up with all of the prominent trends. I barely even watch cooking shows at all. As such, I watch a documentary like Roadrunner with some level of detachment.
Clearly that’s not the baggage many viewers are taking into it though. For others, Bourdain was a huge deal. He was one of the biggest celebrities in the world and his show made a huge difference in the lives of millions of people. Considering the women next to me in the movie theater was crying by the end of the film… he certainly meant something.
As such, Roadrunner has taken some heavy criticism. Rumor had it the movie was quite scrutinous and meandering in its portrayal of Bourdain. A handful of its creative decisions as well were also scrutinized heavily such as its decision to narrative the film with an AI voiceover recreation of Bourdain’s voice.
I’m in no position to comment on whether these decisions were in poor taste or not. The film, if anything, is a deeply scrutinous but heartbreaking depiction of a life in full. It shows the journey of a career chef struggling with drug addiction and drudgery falling into the highs and lows of celebrity and fame. We see a man blessed with one of the most incredible lives in human history who never overcame his despair and inner torment.
In a way, Roadrunner is a classic tragedy about the horror of success and celebrity. Like the romantics of old, he was filled with a love for life, love and experience and yet his discontentment, heartbreak for the poverty he saw around the world and depression bore down on him.
The film more or less chronologically follows his life, staring with his breakout success as the author of the New York Times best selling memoir Kitchen Confidential in 2000. From that point onward, it spins the story of his life by exploring the creative arc of his 18 year celebrity career, his various relationships with women, his relationship with his daughter and how he handled runaway success and fame.
At times, he seems to have had a few sobering moments. A filming in Beirut in 2007 was abruptly stopped when a border skirmish with Israel broke out into war. He was seemingly quite affected by the metaphor of dozens of rich celebrities watching helicopters destroying buildings from the safety of their hotel pool. Similarly, he was also affected when his film crew tried to donate extra food to needy people in Haiti only to watch dozens of children attack each other for food.
The film suggests that his own turbulent, former drug addicted, persona was further plunged into a place of chaos and pain by the realization of life’s inequity and suffering. As such, he tried to use his show to bring attention to people’s lives from all around the world. Regardless, that doesn’t seem to have helped him feel better about his work of the effect he was having on the world.
The title “Roadrunner” is evocative of what the film is trying to say about Bourdain as a personality. It speaks to his temperament. He was a man who lives in the fast lane, thriving on chaos and disorder while trying to resolve that disorder internally. As his ultimate choices prove, he was prone to burning himself out.
Towards the end of the film, the filmmakers start getting more overtly hostile toward Bourdain himself. Most of the interviewers start getting more emotional as they describe his controversial actions in the final few years of his life from firing crew members to getting sucked into a toxic relationship. It becomes clear that that this was very much the ultimate expression of his lifetime of untreated depression.
When the film finally addresses his suicide, it shows just how deeply broken and fractured he left the people around him. Insofar as the movie is scrutinizing Bourdain, it’s criticizing the reality of depression and suicide themselves. The act of taking one’s own life
For a man who fancied himself as a storyteller, his suicide ultimately served as the great mystery of his life. Most everyone around him knew he was unstable and depressed but the day it actually came out was a decision he hadn’t made under duress. He was sober and fully aware of his choice even if it was impulsive. As a result, nobody knows for certain why he did what he did. We can understand his motivations and relationships. We can see his history of emotional distress. But none of those decisions may have been the thing that made him do what he ultimately did.
Roadrunner is an absolutely heart breaking movie. For whatever you can say about some of its decisions, it’s a film that captures the heartbreaking reality of suicide in equal measure to how deeply it captures the joy and suffering of life. It’s a beautiful and enrapturing documentary that ought to be seen, especially by those most affected by his passing.