A film review by Craig J. Koban January 5, 2010
2009, R, 111 mins.
2009, R, 111 mins.
The Man: Viggo Mortensen / The Boy: Kodi Smit-McPhee / Wife:
Charlize Theron / Old Man: Robert Duvall / The Veteran: Guy
The easy response to THE ROAD would be to simplistically label it as a post-apocalyptic, science fiction film. ‘Tis true, the film is about a devastated earth that has suffered from a global catastrophe and the human survivors in its aftermath.
THE ROAD wholeheartedly transcends the genre itself with its disquietingly
powerful – and unflinchingly harsh - handling of its underlining story.
This is one of those rare “post-apocalyptic” films that never
dwells on the reasons behind the near-end of the world; that would
have been a
distraction from the main themes of the story.
This is less a sci-fi thriller and more a potently moving,
heartrendingly brutal, and provocative look at the basic questions
that surround being human: How does one continue to live a morally correct
life when morals have all but eroded?
the endlessly compelling arc to THE ROAD, which is based on one of Cormac
McCarthy’s most cherished novels of the same name, published in 2006.
The Pulitzer Prize winning book for fiction chronicles the tale of
a journey between a father and son over a period of serveral months
across a cataclysm-ravaged earth that is nearing its Biblical end.
Almost all life on earth has perished (it imagines a world
essentially without a biosphere) and it chronicles the struggles of the
pair to make it to their destination without succumbing to the worst of
what’s left of mankind (more or less, most people left have become
ravenous, cannibalistic savages).
has always been labeled as a literary voice that is deceptively difficult
to adapt to the silver screen, and many have commented that THE ROAD is
one of the author’s most un-cinematic books.
The Coen Brothers disproved the cynics with their NO COUNTRY FOR
OLD MEN, which emerged as one of the finest films of 2007, and now THE
ROAD carries on the illustrious legacy of that film as yet another of the
more delicately brilliant appropriations of McCarthy’s difficult prose.
Perhaps what the film does best is to tap into the core of
McCarthy’s writings, which is the battle of a man and a boy to preserve
their sanity and humanity. There
is not a lot in the way of descriptive exposition in the film (the
apocalyptic events, as stated, are ambiguously relayed) nor is there much
of a basic plot that goes from point A to B and finally to C.
Rather, the genius of the film is that its steady focus on the
fragile mindsets of its two main characters and how they perceive the earth on the
brink of eternal collapse. Details
about them are beside the point (we never learn their names or much about
their pre-apocalypse life); the important thrust of the film is seeing
their daily grind and fearful reactions to the world they desperately try
to inhabit. “The Man” has
a singular mission with what’s left of his life: protect his child, even
at the cost of his own health and sanity.
film opens with a stark and desolate immediacy: We see the two aforesaid
survivors, the “Man” (Viggo Mortensen) and his “Boy” (Kodi
as they travel through the hellish landscape several years after the
worldwide ecological disaster that has left the planet a barren, ravaged
wasteland. Throughout the film we see scattered flashbacks into the past
that, I think, take the form The Man’s dreams of his past life with his
wife (Charlize Theron), whom has, in the present, been long since dead.
Many critics have complained that the flashback structure seems too
scattershot and lacks cohesion with the rest of the film; to the contrary,
they exemplarily reinforce the disorganized and fractured nature of
memories and dreams. The Man
tries, as he does, to forget about his more rosy pre-disaster life, but
his memories have a way of creeping back upon him.
those flashbacks we briefly see the beginning of the end and the slow
de-evolution of The Man’s marriage to his wife.
The pair stays secluded in their home and the “Woman”
eventually, and begrudgingly, gives birth to the “Boy.”
Depressingly, she has deep hesitation about bringing a child into a
world of upheaval and chaos, but the Man convinces her otherwise.
Yet, in the years after the Boy’s birth we see the Woman get
increasingly paranoid and mentally unstable, up until the point where she
– in one of the film’s many tear-inducing scenes – decides to
leave her family and wander into the wild...mostly unclothed, without food,
water, or any goals in mind...to apparently die.
The Man reveals his feelings with a painfully melancholic and
poetic monologue that says little, but speaks
volumes about his regressed hurt and regret: “She
was gone…and the coldness of it was her final gift.”
the film segues back and forth into the present, we see the Man and Boy
try to make their way – via any means necessary – to the coast and
then head south, where it's apparently warmer.
Their somewhat aimless travels sees them on abandoned
highways and roads that look like auto wreck junk yards, through dilapidated
school buildings, gas stations, and grotesque forests where the trees and
vegetation have all but eroded to ashes.
Other things seriously impede their travels: Firstly, the
earth quakes, aftershocks, and spontaneous eruption of fire on the land;
secondly, the Man and Boy’s desperate struggle to find food and
shelter; and lastly, the final remnants of mankind that have resorted to
cannibalism to stay alive. The
film has such an unsettling poignancy and economy in terms of dealing with
the Man addressing the latter concerns with his son.
“We’re the good guys? Right papa?
Promise me you’ll never leave me,” asks the soft-spoken child.
The Man reassures him the best he can, even when he knows that he may
eventually have to break his word.
ROAD was directed by John Hillcoat, an Australian-born, Canadian–raised
filmmaker that made one of the most stunningly atmospheric and tactile
westerns I’ve ever seen in 2006’s THE
That film created an undeniable sense of gritty, vicious, and
uncompromising verisimilitude that far too many westerns lack.
Hillcoat rightfully and masterfully showed the Australian outback
as one of stark, unforgiving physical decay and desolation where the
hearts and minds of its characters were as despairing and uncertain as
the environment they occupied. I found the world that Hillcoat
created in THE PROPOSITION could literally be touched and
smelled while watching it; the sweaty, stiflingly hot, and repugnant aura
of the land in pre-20th Century Australia was as foreign and
alien as anything in George Lucas’ STAR WARS saga.
THE PROPOSITION was a key example of the transformative and
power of the movies.
a scant budget of only $20 million, filming in real locations (such as
abandoned and decayed coalfields, dunes, and run-down parts of Pittsburgh and a ravaged post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans), and
admonishing the use of any obvious CGI artifice,
Hillcoat has amazingly crafted in THE ROAD much of the same as he did
in his last film. Shot with a
gritty, grimy, and spookily grey saturated wash by cinematographer Javier
Aguirresarobe, Hillcoat creates one of the most eerily convincing and
lingering post-apocalyptic landscapes of the movies.
This is not a film where the visual effects lend themselves to
close scrutiny (this is not a "showy" piece of lavish, "see
what we can do" eye candy), which would have ruined the emotional
resonance of the film.
Instead, Hillcoat makes startling use of real locations augmented
by minimal CG tinkering to foster a stark and ravaged world in severe
ecological trauma ripe with primitive and animalistic impulses (CGI was sparingly
used to remove the colorful skies and the shrubs and all greenery from the landscape).
The barrenness and silence that permeates this world (Hillcoat
knows precisely when not to use music) only heightens the film’s
suspense and tension. With
its junk-strew wilderness, godless immorality, flavorless scenery, THE ROAD
is one of the best evocations of a dying earth ever, and one
where you can plausible see how it brings out the worst impulse
film’s moral conundrums are as expertly handled as its physical look.
THE ROAD is painfully difficult to sit though, especially when it
comes to the damning realization of the Man that, perhaps one day, he just
might have to shoot his son in the head with one of his last two bullets in
order to spare him of being eating and raped by hordes of bandits.
The unrelenting coldness of the film is typified in everything from
moments of sheer, ghastly terror to quieter, more reflective dialogue
exchanges. There is an
unforgettably barbaric moment when father and son stumble on a house where
it appears that cannibals have locked away naked, screaming, half
dismembered humans like rotting leftovers in a refrigerator. The sheer depravity on display is enough to drive anyone to
insanity, but emotional core of the film is the Man trying to guide his
son through the most corruptible of human atrocities, and he does so with
dialogue passages that have a simplistic and restrained profundity.
“I will kill anyone that touches you…because that’s my job,
“ says the Man. His boy is the last,
pure outlet to maintaining a life worth continuing: “All
I know is the child is my warrant, and if he is not the word of God, then
God never spoke.”
Viggo Mortensen – looking unhealthily emaciated and absolutely encrusted with dirt, dust, grime, and every possible pollutant imaginable – creates a performances of passionate determination, tremendously raw instincts, and that of a man that enunciates every syllable with an asphyxiated and raspy sigh. Mortensen is one of the greatest vanity-free actors working today: he has super model features and a handsome façade, and it's easy to overlook how marvelously he sheds away all ego but immersing himself in the unsightly, disheveled, and filthy visage of the Man. Kodi Smit-McPhee perhaps has the toughest job of all to convince audiences that he is a figure of childlike innocence that is desperately trying to grasp all of the unspeakable horrors that he witnesses. There is not one false emotional note in his performance (watch how he handles a scene where he drinks his very first soda pop...ever) and he and Mortensen are the heartbeat to the film that seems hermetically sealed within the impassive and endlessly cold-hearted vacuum of the world they struggle in. There is also a cameo late in the film by Robert Duvall (extraordinarily unrecognizable) that shares a brief, but moving, scene where he and the Man try to shift through the Catch-22 of trying to live a life worth living in a world that has died before them.
ROAD is a very, very difficult film to assimilate.
Ambient sobbing could be heard at the screening I was at: this is a
tough, brutal, demoralizing and depressing film to engage in (the studio
ridiculously decided to delay release of the film three times until it
ended up playing during the festive Christmas season, not a wise choice
for a gloomy and dreary end-of-humanity parable).
THE ROAD is indeed, utterly heartbreaking and emotional
shattering, and as much time as I spent through the film feeling truly disturbed
and fidgety, I recalled something that critic Roger Ebert once said: “Every
bad movie is depressing. No
good movie is depressing.” THE
ROAD mercilessly pummels viewers with its grueling and tortuous creation
of a world without hope and decorum, but therein lies the film’s transcending,
ethereal power: Here’s a
post-apocalyptic universe that is not sugar-coated or sanitized for the
benefit of cheap and digestible summer adventure movie-going consumption.
No, THE ROAD, despite its harshness and nihilism, is an exceedingly
touching and oddly uplifting presentation of two people trying to ensure that
the fire of humanity does not get extinguished forever.
It’s about love, loss, death, loneliness, fear, calamity, and
most significantly, survival…especially when all other human impulses tell you to end it all.
For that, THE ROAD emerges as one of 2009’s most bitterly raw,
uncomforting, but eloquently stirring human dramas. It will
stay with me for a long time.
It will stay with me for a long time.