A film review by Craig J. Koban January 5, 2010

Rank:  #3


2009, R, 111 mins.


The Man: Viggo Mortensen / The Boy: Kodi Smit-McPhee / Wife: Charlize Theron / Old Man: Robert Duvall / The Veteran: Guy Pearce

Directed by John Hillcoat / Written by Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy

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.  

Yet, 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? 

That’s 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).   

McCarthy 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. 

The film opens with a stark and desolate immediacy: We see the two aforesaid survivors, the “Man” (Viggo Mortensen) and his “Boy” (Kodi Smit-McPhee) 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. 

During 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.” 

As 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 frequent 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. 

THE 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 PROPOSITION.  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 escapist power of the movies. 

With 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 in people. 

The 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.

THE 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.

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