Directed by John Hillcoat
Based upon the novel by Cormac McCarthy
**** (four stars)
Evidence of beauty and grace can sometimes be discovered in the most unlikeliest of places, especially at times, when you may least expect to find such qualities. I absolutely had no idea of what to expect with Director John Hillcoat’s adaptation of author Cormac McCarthy’s extremely desolate Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road. While the story does contain a certain momentum and unrelenting tension, it is a more meditative piece of work as the narrative of the novel is presented as a series of vignettes filtered through McCarthy’s purposely sparse and poetic writing style. I was puzzled and uncertain as to how exactly it would or even could translate to a visual medium. After viewing the resulting film, I was intensely rewarded and enlightened with Hillcoat’s vision and representation. I was decidedly unprepared for the ultimate beauty and grace I found in a work that could have simply existed as an ugly, depressing experience. Hillcoat not only faithfully and sensitively brought McCarthy’s vision to life, he enhanced what I had previously read, making for a film experience that resonated and burrowed deeply under my skin.
Due to an unknown tragedy, the world has almost seen its final hour of existence, leaving behind the most unthinkable of ruins. All animals are extinct. Dead trees and charred vegetation all contain an ashen texture, appearing as if disintegration into dust will occur after the slightest touch. The sun is no longer visible or able to warm the planet as the skies have fallen into a constant dreary gray from which a hard, cold rain falls frequently. Walking through this desolate, lawless wasteland are an unnamed Father and son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) desperately clinging onto each other as they search for food and shelter as they make their way south towards the coast. Yet, haunting their every step, aside from the constant pang of hunger and the possibility that their strength will extinguish, is the crippling fear of being found and decimated by violent roadside gangs of thieves, rapists and worst of all, cannibals as the flesh of human beings are now seemingly the only source of nourishment. All of the Man and Boy's possessions are carried along via shopping cart, one of which is a gun, containing only one remaining bullet.
As with the novel, the film is essentially a series of taut segments, detailing the Man and boy’s journey and precarious survival. Along the way, they investigate abandoned houses (including the Man’s childhood home), narrowly escape certain doom, find shelter and food and occasionally wander across other traveling survivors, including one 90 year old man (Robert Duvall), a thief (Michael Kenneth Williams from HBO’s “The Wire”) and another drifter (Guy Pearce) who may ultimately be of aid to the boy. As the Man is plagued by nightmares of the world he once knew as well as memories of the love of his life (Charlize Theron) who ultimately left Father and son behind by committing suicide in the barren, cold world, the Man tries to retain a sense of hope for a potential future of solace and peacefulness with the boy he loves even more than his own life.
Despite the uncompromisingly grim nature of the material, I wouldn’t exactly say that “The Road” is an entirely depressing or self consciously dark experience. As I stated at the start of this review, beauty and grace can sometimes be found in the unlikeliest of places and what “The Road” offers most is presenting us with a chamber piece devoted to the resiliency of hope, love and humanity, even at the end of the world. Although the minimalist story contains a near absence of color, “The Road” is almost lush in its presentation and it is also amazing how the film worked tremendously well as a superlative antidote to two more recent and downright terrible entries in the apocalypse/post apocalyptic genre, last year's “2012” and this year's “The Book Of Eli.”
Utilizing a meticulously designed visual landscape that is so identical to “Eli” that I would not have been surprised if Denzel Washington himself crept through the frame, passing Mortensen and Smit-McPhee on their own journey, I could not help but to think about how this film went so right where both of those previous films went so horribly wrong.
In my review of “2012,” I expressed that the film had absolutely no redeeming social value whatsoever. With “Eli,” while I loved the visual presentation, it had an empty core which it desperately tried to rectify during the film’s final minutes to absolutely no avail. “The Road” corrects both of those mistakes handsomely by having the aforementioned location and set design, evocative music score by Nick Cave and ashen cinematography completely form a symbiotic relationship with the empathetic performances and thematic qualities of the story. Even as violent as this story sounds, nothing gratuitous is shown outright while the constant threat of violence hangs over the proceedings and anything more graphic is suggested.
The film has many philosophical concepts on its mind and watching "The Road" demands that the viewer ponder the same questions and concepts as well. What exactly constitutes humanity in a world that has quite possibly destroyed all of it? What constitutes survival and sacrifice? What does it mean to suffer and what is the cruelest fate of all, dying by your own hands and free will or at the hands of the ones who would rape and eat you in a split-second?
One extremely tense sequence occurs early in the film as the Man and Boy have a close shave inside of an apparently empty house. While scouring for food, they discover a collective of naked, emaciated people trapped in the basement and obviously being utilized as a food source for a band of marauders. As the Man and Boy hide in an upstairs room with footsteps approaching slowly, the Man has to face the choice of using his final bullet to potentially murder his own son, for the sole reason of sparing him from an even worse fate. For this story to go to this unprecedented level to depict love and humanity is terrifying, dangerous and somehow, so blindingly true and somehow non-exploitative as the sequence is not handled with any sense of sensationalism or false tension. How could one not be forced to ponder our own inhumane atrocities in world history through hypothetical musings like “The Road”? How could one not be forced to question what they would/could or wouldn't/couldn't do? Or how far you would be willing to go just to protect the ones who matter most? These questions and themes are inherent in the fabric of the story and combined with the visualization, "The Road" carries an unquestionable weight that cannot be ignored.
What made "The Road" plunge deepest into my heart were the performances of the entire cast and the chemistry between Mortensen and Smit-McPhee in particular. Duvall, Williams and Pearce each hold perhaps one scene for themselves and they are all fairly brief. Yet somehow, their lives and how they arrived at their respective points in this unthinkable phase in the world are fully felt. Also, in just a small handful of scenes, Charlize Theron creates a rich, three dimensional character. You are easily able to see why she is beloved by Mortensen as well as the lengths to which she is willing to descend after everything she has ever known has been obliterated.
The core of the film belongs to Mortensen and Smit-McPhee and their relationship is one of the most powerfully tender Father/son relationships I have seen in a long time, or at least since Director Gabriele Muccino's "The Pursuit Of Happyness" (2006) starring Will Smith and his son, Jaden. In many ways, "The Road" is a tribute to Fathers, a historically maligned group on film and in television. I have no idea if Viggo Mortensen has children in real life, but I do have to say that the chemistry between Mortensen and Smit-McPhee felt so honest and so heartbreakingly real that I, several times, questioned if Smit-McPhee was actually his real son.
Viggo Mortensen, with his somber voice, under-nourished frame and hollow, mournful eyes is brilliant as he quietly conveys the soul of a man who has lived through the impossible and just as impossibly, continues onwards determined to keep the flame of humanity alive, if for no one else than his son. Knowing full well that the path of his life is nearing its end, he struggles with how to teach his son to survive in a world that was unforeseen to him but in fact, is the only world the boy has ever known.
Kodi Smit-McPhee is Mortensen's equal in every way, depicting a level of aching trust and fragility. The Boy is the Man's conscience, his inner guide of caution and reminder to not forsake his own humanity even when the Man fully knows better. But then again, the Boy is perhaps even more perceptive than his Father realizes as he is also trying to internalize the inevitable day when his Father passes on and he is left alone to fend for himself. Smit-McPhee never, for an instant, strikes one false note. His nerve endings are laid bare and you feel them all.
Certainly, after a long day of work, tasks, parenting and all manner of business that occupies us during our long days and nights, "The Road" is definitely not the film to unwind with. But, I do highly recommend this film for those who are willing to take up this cinematic challenge. It will reward you in ways you may not plan for much like the magical sight of a rainbow, or a cleansing dip in a waterfall in a world that has been robbed of nearly all of its natural wonders.
"The Road" is a triumph as it places the unbreakable bonds between Father and son at the forefront, at the center and for its entire state of purpose and being. When everything, including the world itself, is gone forever, love will still remain and if that is not representative of a film with some semblance of redeeming social value, then I do not know what else could do it.