Less a road movie than a trying-to-get-on-the-road movie, “Alcan Highway” is a rustic, picaresque adventure about a rootless 44-year-old Finn in Alaska, trying to drive to Vancouver in his dream home: an ancient Airstream Land Yacht jerry-rigged onto a 63-year-old GMC Cannonball COE (cab over engine) truck. Auds who thrill to such vehicular descriptions will drive directly to helmer Aleksi Salmenpera’s wonderfully lensed docu, which includes quite a bit of tinkering with engines that occasionally catch fire. But as an offbeat character portrait and an adventure about finding one’s own way in a conventional world, it’s also accessible to a broader audience.
Salmenpera is in no rush to tell us everything about his central subject, Hese Tolonen, preferring to allow the man’s motivations to roll out in fits and starts, in much the way that Tolonen’s 1950 truck cab will eventually lurch along the Alaskan Highway. Tolonen is a rootless guy — no one’s sure why or how long this has been the case — but he has the idea of finding an affordable way to make the more-than-3,000-mile trip from Alaska to Vancouver, and somehow locates a $700 truck that hasn’t been started in 40 years. All things considered, it’s a bit like crossing the Pacific in a tub.
Tolonen recruits Jon Ayres, with whom he’s traveled before, and Rhys Palmer, a bona fide truck mechanic, without whom the entire film would have been shot in a salvage yard in Wasilla, Alaska (Sarah Palin’s hometown). What makes “Alcan Highway” more than just a don’t-do-it-yourself engine-repair instruction manual is the dynamics among Tolonen, Palmer, Ayres and the yard’s owner, Bennett Durgeloh.
Even among the taciturn Alaskans, the Finnish Tolonen is tight-lipped, so Durgeloh doesn’t know how Tolonen plans to pay him for the use of the yard; when they disagree about the value of some tires and wheels Durgeloh wants to sell, the lack of communication results in a great deal of tension. Meanwhile, Tolonen’s inability to make decisions and refusal to admit when he doesn’t know something about the engine on his impossible truck have the effect of driving Palmer crazy, while Ayres tries to keep the peace. In an unusually nonverbal way, “Alcan Highway” plays out like Chekhov in a junkyard.
The locales are unsurprisingly gorgeous, and Hena Blomberg’s lensing is first-rate. Less obvious and more critical is the film’s sense of construction — the way Salmenpera shoots Tolonen’s various actions, and the truck’s, to create sense of a fluidity, motion and solitude. On some level, the viewer is likely aware that there’s a second vehicle on hand, even during Tolonen’s days-long delay at a Canadian truck stop, during which his engine bursts into flame (while Canadian motorists at the nearby gas pumps calmly continue refueling). But there’s never any intrusion by the filmmakers, and their existence is rendered more or less moot. Once Palmer and Ayres go back to their lives (they’d only signed on for a limited time), Tolonen is supposed to be on his own, and that’s the way it feels. How Salmenpera choreographs this is one of the film’s joys.
There are wonderfully revealing moments delivered in an offhand style: a storeowner in Alaska referring to the lower 48 as “America,” as if he isn’t part of it; the way Tolonen eyeballs a bus for sale, even though the near-derelict truck he already owns is a big question mark; the way a young girl at a convenience store watches, with nascent wanderlust, as Tolonen pulls away (an obvious setup, but an affecting one). And the great people Tolonen meets on the road, including two mechanics who take minutes to fix problems that Tolonen has had for days.
Production values are first-rate, including the music, except perhaps when Tolonen is singing.