Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Road Review

The Road:
Directed by John Hillcoat
Released in 2009

The world is in ruins. Once-lively cities are now wastelands. Forests are no more than burnt twigs and dead leaves. Almost the entire human race is extinct. And we do not know why.

Such is the general premise of The Road. An apocalypse, of human or natural origin is not known, completely ravages the world yet brings together two survivors: a father and son. In a world where the sun has ceased to rise, a young boy faces a tough life full of struggle, death and mystery. In The Road, directed by John Hillcoat, this boy is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, a relative newcomer to cinema who shines as the pure, unscathed soul in a world of pain. His fiercely protective father, played by the consistently excellent Viggo Mortensen, does not hide the world's state in front of his son's eyes but will kill anyone who tries to harm him. This relationship is the foundation for this entire film and what could have been a disastrous, boring two hours of cinema is elevated as one of the best films of 2009 because of the superb acting and excellent source material by Cormac McCarthy.

The action, set only a few years into the future considering the child was born before the apocalypse, is offset by a few flashbacks to a supposedly better time. Charlize Theron is the mother who cannot bear the life and world she lives in as the atrophy of her marriage comes to attest. The tragic turn of events in their relationship sets the father and son off into the world, alone. They seek to go to the sea, most likely because it always carries a symbolic hope that the land does not. Most of the survivors have resorted to theft, murder or cannibalism, the latter shown during a haunting visit to a house's cellar. With only two bullets and a revolver to defend themselves with, the man and boy, never given a name, decide to flee most of their dangerous encounters rather than combat them. The boy consistently asks his father, "Are we the good guys?" met with the usual response "Of course we are." However, as later events show including a heartbreaking encounter with a poor thief, their moral compass starts to point astray in a land with no laws or predetermined consequences.

There is a bare minimum of supporting characters in this tale, though each one is extremely memorable in one way or another. Guy Pearce, with a facade far away from Memento, is the base for the film's powerful, closing scene. Michael K. Williams is the aforementioned thief who becomes the subject for the father's fury. His disheveled look and emotional pleading provide a compelling character who serves as a turning point for the man and boy's journey. None of these characters, however, compare to the impact the old man makes in his memorable 9 minutes of screen time. Robert Duvall, almost unrecognizable under layers of dirt, worn skin and glossy cataracts, is the "Old Man" the pair comes across and spends a night with. In a rather humorless film, he provides a few lines of comic relief yet also some of the deepest, most philosophical dialogue of the film. When asked by the father if he ever thinks of dying, he responds, "It’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these." A line like that sits alongside Colonel Kilgore's famous napalm speech in that you laugh at it yet choke on its resonance. His past is mysterious as well considering he cries after seeing the young boy in front of him, an angel in his eyes, and had a son whose fate he is too tortured to reveal.  Duvall's short appearance makes the movie and enlightens everything around him.

What is around him is bleak and depressing, though beautifully poetic in a way. With cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, known for countless foreign films as well as the recent Twilight film (huh?), a vision of torn-apart America is realized. Gray and brown are the film's primary colors and the brighter, pre-destruction world is a real counter to what exists in their current environment. A captivating score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis does not overstay its welcome, a worry in a story of such raw, coarse melancholy. While No Country For Old Men, the fantastic, other McCarthy adaptation, brilliantly implemented almost no orchestration whatsoever, The Road uses it to its advantage by incorporating a light layer of it during many of the scenes. 

The Road is a bleak, depressing film. One of the first shots of Viggo Mortensen's character as he is sleeping almost looks like a zombie, with mouth ajar and hollow eyes. The life from him is draining and he seems to exist merely as a shell of what he used to be. There is also a common theme of suicide that pervades the whole film. In an opening conversation between father and son, he teaches his child how to properly commit suicide with a revolver, a necessity for anyone being sought out by cannibals it seems. However, there is an uplifting nature to this film. The father has a purpose in life, to protect and care for his boy, that continually motivates him to push forward. Moments of childlike wonder pop up as well, such as the son drinking a can of Coke that has retained its fizz. Ultimately, The Road is austere in its nature yet optimistic in its message that there is always something to be fighting for, that blue sea to reach. 

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

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