Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Road

Post-apocalyptic movies are a bleak bunch, but The Road is depressing even by the genre’s standards. I’ll go ahead and preface this review with the confession that I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-Prize winner of the same name. Having read some of his other works, I knew that The Road was apt to be heavy, perhaps even hopeless. I was right. The setting is remarkably well-realized and the performances soar, but I’ll wager that some of the same viewers who loved the film version of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (myself included) will find The Road less enjoyable. It’s a well-built, dark, dangerous road.

At some point in the near future, the world is a wasteland. An unexplained cataclysm has destroyed almost all life, including plants and animals, and only a few unfortunate humans have survived. A father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are among the survivors, and they spend their time walking south trying to reach the coast. They’re not even sure what they hope to find there. Along the way, they try to stay warm, scour for food, and avoid the gangs of rapists and cannibals that threaten all who traverse the road.

The Road is very minimalist in its approach. There’s little dialogue, we don’t know what happened to the world, and we don’t even know the characters’ names. That’s the way McCarthy writes, and it translates to the screen effectively, just as it did in No Country. The big difference for me comes in The Road’s pervasive feeling of hopelessness and despair. Whatever happened to the world to destroy all life, there’s no coming back from it. The soil can’t support crops anymore, so the characters know that sooner or later, supplies will run out. The few humans who survived the apocalypse by mistake will starve. As Viggo Mortensen’s character says in one scene, “There is no other tale to tell.”

Viggo Mortensen gives what may be the most compelling performance of his career as a father caught in an impossible situation. Having lost his wife (Charlize Theron), his only reason to go on is his son. He instills in his son the desire to stay alive but also teaches him how to quickly commit suicide if the cannibals should capture him. Kodi Smit-McPhee seems completely genuine as a child who has grown up far too quickly but still has some of the innocence and curiosity of youth. His conversations with his father show the confusion and moral dilemmas always on his mind, as he asks questions like, “We’re still the good guys, right? ... We would never eat anyone, right?” The Road holds some haunting, unforgettable moments.

There aren’t many actors in the film, as there aren’t many people left alive on the planet, but all performances are strong. One cameo stands out in particular from a near-unrecognizable Robert Duvall playing an old man who crosses paths with the father and son on the road. The Road offers snippets of hope here and there, but in the end, it’s mostly hopeless. I’ve heard people say that the book shows humanity at its best and worst, and again, I can’t speak for the book, but the film spends most of its time showing humanity at its worst. The overall tone of hopelessness swallows up any small measure of optimism offered once every thirty minutes.

The ruined world looks frighteningly real, with abandoned cars and empty houses scattered about. Many trees still stand but are dead. “Eventually,” says the father, “all the trees of the world will fall.” When I reached the end credits, I admired the film’s technical achievements, as well as its unwavering commitment to the darkness of the parable. I think The Road leads where many viewers simply can’t follow, because most of us like to think that the future holds some measure of hope (beyond eventual starvation). Still, through solid execution and strong performances, The Road does everything that it set out to do. I admire the artists, but I expect the art itself to be widely rejected. The world needs something to believe in right now, and The Road leads unapologetically to a dark dead end.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language.

The Road would probably give nightmares to the bravest of children, and that goes for children of all ages. Nothing jumps out and scares you, but for two hours, a feeling of hopelessness consumes you. One scene in particular involving a basement full of cannibal victims would keep kids awake for a week. Don’t take anyone who can’t buy their own ticket, and even then, be cautious. There’s nothing about this story that can be written off in the “Don’t worry, it’s not real” category. The Road will stick with everyone who sees it.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, Dee. As always, well written. The Road is one of those movies that excels in its art, but tells a story that makes it hard to recommend. At least you have to admire a film that was definitely not just made for the marketplace. Again, well done review