Roadrunner | ★★★★ | Now playing in theaters 

You know that saying about how the brightest stars burn out fastest? 

They also burn hottest, and when detonated like a nuclear bomb, leave black holes in their wake. 

Such was the shocking suicide of American chef, icon, and globe-trotting adventurer Anthony Bourdain, who while on location in France filming his popular television show in 2018, died alone in an apartment. His death devastated not just the reality TV demigod’s devoted fan base, but the world. 

That’s because Bourdain felt like more than just another celebrity. His honesty and ability to be vulnerable and connect with all walks of life through his mix of sardonic charisma and authentic yearning for connection created an intimate bond with viewers. And because of the twisted power that is the prison of celebrity, his death broadcast a kind of grief to millions, leaving a searing scar. For many, it still hurts. 

A new bio-doc, Roadrunner, shines a light on Bourdain’s remarkable ascent from junkie backroom cook to world-traveling cultural icon, and also dares an unflinching look at the circumstances surrounding his untimely demise. 

In his travels, Bourdain never shied away from the nitty-gritty reality of the places he’d explore, oftentimes with a dark sense of humor. To go where this film goes, and it goes dark and deep, was a huge risk. It reviews painful and personal truths Bourdain himself may never have wanted in his narrative—which, as the author of his own death, he controlled with remarkable precision. That risk undoubtedly pays off, though not without crossing ethical boundaries that may leave some viewers uncomfortable.

For instance, most of the film is narrated by Bourdain himself using the abundance of footage from his nearly two decades hosting No Reservations and Parts Unknown. But existing archives weren’t enough for filmmaker Morgan Neville, who actually used artificial intelligence to resurrect the dead man’s voice, in voiceovers of him reading emails and other personal artifacts that were likely never spoken aloud. The ethics of this aside, it’s just creepy. Bourdain, I’m sure, would hate it. 

Then, there’s the exhausting detail of which we learn about Bourdain’s final chapter, his tumultuous relationship with Italian actress Asia Argento (whose side of the story we don’t get, as she wasn’t interviewed in the film). It will satisfy your darkest questions that perhaps a less brave filmmaker would have left open to interpretation.  

Those discomforts aside, the film truly succeeds in capturing what was so intoxicating about Bourdain—his unsatisfiable appetite for the unknown. He was always running—from the kitchen to kitchen, all over the world—but also from his own demons. We glean through interviews with his closest friends and colleagues a glimpse at Bourdain behind the scenes. He wasn’t a saint. He could be an asshole. This makes him more endearing. 

By the end, Bourdain becomes simultaneously the victim and villain in his own story. Perhaps its greatest justice is rejecting the impulse to paint him angelically. Bourdain would have hated that. 

In this vein, the film’s most powerful moment is not Bourdain’s death, but an act of defacement.

Artist David Choe remarks that “Going out in a blaze of glory was so fucking lame, but we live in this society where every great artist who kills themselves is on murals and they’re talked about like gods”

Choe smirks. 

“I should go deface them,” he adds. “He would love it if I did that.”

He finds one such mural of Bourdain’s long mug and does just that. We are left then with an image of Bourdain’s unblinking eye, gazing from behind chaotic layers of spray paint.

It’s a punk rock “fuck you.” From what is trashed, something new emerges. Because try—and try he did—Bourdain could not destroy Bourdain. 

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