‘The Roads Not Taken’ Ending, Explained: What Does The Last Scene Symbolize?

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Directed by Sally Potter, “The Roads Not Taken” is a grim watch that revolves around the lives of a man who suffers from dementia and his daughter, who cannot seem to accept her father’s condition. Javier Bardem convincingly portrays the role of a man who imagines what he could have been had he made different choices in life. Even though he physically resides in a one-bedroom apartment with minimal furniture, accompanied by the deafening noise of the subway trains passing by, he travels to the past, to his childhood lover, and a trip to Greece after the birth of his daughter, Molly. Molly struggles to fathom what her father is going through, but she refuses to give up.


Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?

Leo is lost in the past while the doorbell continues to ring. His daughter, Molly, storms in to check on her father. She reminds him of the switch that opens the door, but Leo barely takes all that into account. Even though he looks at Molly, his mind is wandering off to a different time and space. Molly gets her father ready to visit the dentist and the optometrist. Leo imagines his life with his childhood lover, Dolores, a name that Molly had never heard of but her mother was quick to recognize.

Molly struggled to keep control of her father, whose imagined life often affected the one he was physically present in. A particular moment that beautifully encapsulates the father-daughter relationship is when Leo wets his pants at the dentist’s chamber, and Molly gives him her pants to wear. The father felt a sense of embarrassment, but Molly tried her best to not let Leo get affected by it. On their way to the optometrist’s office, Leo was involved in a minor accident as he jumped out of the taxi. At the hospital, Molly’s mother came to visit Leo. The two had divorced, and she had remarried. Even though she was quite unaffected by Leo’s condition, initially doubting its severity, she soon realized her ex-husband was not the person she knew any longer. Molly was infuriated when the nurses at the hospital spoke indirectly about Leo. It made her feel as if her father was not present there. Her mother questioned if he was truly present at the moment, and Molly did not have an answer to that.

Leo mourned the death of his dog, Nestor, who had passed away a long time ago but was etched in Leo’s memory. After their unsuccessful day, Molly sensed that her father needed her that night, and she decided to stay with him. As Molly dozed off to sleep, Leo stepped out of his house at night. Unable to find her father, she informed the police, and he was later brought home. The next morning, Leo wakes up and tries to explain how his mind tried to explore the untraveled roads, the ones he chose to not take, only to realize that the life that he lived with his daughter was indeed the most fulfilling one.

Major Spoilers Ahead


What Were The Roads Not Taken?

There are two lives that Leo imagines he would have lived had he chosen either one of the two paths. One was with his childhood lover, Dolores, in Mexico, and the other was his escape trip to Greece. With Dolores, his life took a tragic turn when they lost their son in a car accident. She wanted him to come along with her to mourn the death of their child on “dis de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead). Their conversation indicated that it had occurred a few years back, but he refused to be a part of public mourning. Dolores was enraged by Leo’s response and left the house. Watching Dolores leave alone, he followed her and got in her car eventually. Even though he agreed to join her at the mourning, he refused to leave flowers under the bridge, where the accident had taken place. He got out of the car, and Dolores left for her journey alone, once again.

Walking on the deserted road, Leo hopped on a truck and traveled to the bridge. The sight distressed him, but he was finally able to confront it. At night, he went to the burial ground and was greeted by Dolores. People lit candles and brought flowers for the ones they loved and lost. They were not the only ones grieving; the pain was shared. Dolores asked Leo to sit close to their son. After all, it was the night when the spirit of the dead would come to visit them, and the three could finally unite. Leo regretted the fact that he had let his son travel to school alone that day, and that he could not seek revenge from the driver whose fault ruined their lives. He felt immensely guilty and had nothing but regret for all the things he could have done but did not. We get to notice that the son’s name is Nestor when Leo cries on his grave. The connection between the real world and the imagined is established through the name. The idea of loss is connected only to the fact that his life with Dolores was nothing but a fragment of his imagination.

The second imagined life unfolds on an island in Greece. He is a writer who is on the verge of ending his book, but he is unsure of how to end it. He seeks help from a young girl, to whom he ends up spilling his life story. He left his wife and daughter to concentrate on his book. The constant crying of the baby disturbed him. It has been over twenty years since he has stayed on the island away from his family. He now wondered if his family would recognize and accept him. The young girl responded that it is almost unlikely for him to be accepted by his family now. He was too self-centered to leave his child and focus on his life. The young girl was of his daughter’s age, and that might be the reason why he tried to bond with her, to fulfill his desire to meet his child, who might not have welcomed him. In the end, he ends up rowing a boat one night and is retrieved by fishermen who found him dead in the middle of the sea.


‘The Roads Not Taken’ Ending Explained: What Does The Last Scene Indicate?

After traveling the roads, he chose to not take, Leo, wakes up to find his daughter Molly sitting by the bed. All his life choices led him to this moment. Life with Dolores could have turned sorrowful. His escape to Greece would have left him alone and dying. In both the alternate lives, he grieves the loss of his offspring, but when he wakes up, he realizes that he made the right choice, the choice that led him to be with his daughter. Molly was surprised when Leo uttered her name, with the events of the previous day, she had assumed that her father might not even recognize who she was. To hear him say her name after all that she went through made a difference in her life. Her father did run away to Greece after she was born, but he returned immediately after realizing that it was a mistake.

Molly expressed her desire to work on a story she is passionate about. She lost an opportunity to pitch the story she had wanted to for a long time, owing to her father’s health. She has to travel to cover the story, and she informs her father that she cannot be by his side all the time. “The Roads Not Taken” ends with two possibilities: a part of Molly helps her father go to sleep and leaves for work, and the other sits with her father, trying to understand his world from his point of view. The film leaves Molly with two roads to take. One can be the one where she travels to work on a story to honor the story of her father, and the other is the one in which she spends time with him trying to figure out his puzzling world. It may have a lot to do with what one has to do and what one wants to do. She would have preferred to be with her father at all times, but realistically, she has to go to work and continue with her life.

“The Roads Not Taken” is an emotional journey with a brilliant performance from Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning. Leo’s inability to share his incomprehensible experience, only to utter a few words and shed tears, affects those in the audience. The film also touches upon how, even after spending thirty years in the US, he is still looked at as an outsider. The constant marginalization Leo faced was not only because he could not remember but also because he was an immigrant. Leo dreamt of Mexico in his dreams. The film skillfully brought together the various imagined could-have-beens of Leo. The emotions could have been better received if the father-daughter relationship was explored further. The impact of the father on Molly’s life is significant, but we never get to know the depth of it.


“The Roads Not Taken” is a 2020 Family Drama film directed by Sally Potter.

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Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni has worked as a film researcher on a government-sponsored project and is currently employed as a film studies teacher at a private institute. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. Film History and feminist reading of cinema are her areas of interest.

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