(2009) dir. John Hillcoat
Adapted from best-selling author Cormac McCarthy’s populist literary novel, The Road is a bleak-as-bleak-can-be post-apocalyptic vision of humanity. And while survivalism is a key to its drama, it’s not one riddled with avenging angels, zombies, aliens, or big visual effects, but rather is boiled down to a core nugget of humanism and the survival not just of the body or the species but of humanity in its most basic form. No, this is clearly not the dark but fun ride of many of these science fictiony visions, but one of harrowing emotionality.
It’s a father and a son, hitting the proverbial “road”, in a world greatly changed by some unnamed cataclysm. All the animals are dead, plants are all but dying, civization is eradicated. And this has all happened in the brief span of a portion of a lifetime, a change from the colorful, sun-dappled beauty glimpsed in flashbacks. And as the man and his about 10 year old son, also unnamed as they are in the book, seek out food and hope amidst purely gray and decaying landscapes, one has to wonder how they can hope.
And really, that is the story. The man loves his son with the greatest of fatherly kindness, lives for him literally, and is ready to do anything to save him from fates worse than death. You see, most survivors have turned into cannibals, hunting other humans for food as they are the only still fresh opportunity for such sustenance. And being that the boy is young and beautiful, the portent of rape is present as well (though more in the book than in the film — you see, I did actually read this.)
I found the film, like many critics, to be a slog. A slog of gray. A slog of dark, brutal hopelessness. The father is ready to put a bullet in his son’s head, and then in his own, to save them from fates worse than death. This is fatherly love in a world full of inhumanity. And the father reminds his son that they are “the good guys”, since there are so many not so good guys out there, which is primarilly defined by not eating other people.
Critics noted that in the book, one could imagine or limit the imagination of some of the film’s stark horror and brutal situations, but in the film, they are literalized and made gory and concrete, inescapable, and perhaps just plain too much. And for me, because I wasn’t actually all that impressed by the book, I probably would have not even bothered with the film if it hadn’t been directed by John Hillcoat, whose 2005 film The Proposition had impressed me so much. He seemed like an interesting and apt selection to approach this material, given his ability to handle a brutal story and find humanity within it.
It’s hardly that the film is a disaster itself. Perhaps it is just more suffering and muted colors than anyone really can feel like dirging through for almost 2 hours, which the epicness of the themes demand for such a monumental tale of meaningfulness. And that’s just the key element of the film’s (and perhaps the book’s as well) biggest onus. It’s so goddamn serious, so goddamn portentious, so full of human meaning, passing the hope and love between father and son, against a hopeless world and stark horrors. Maybe that is a glimpse of “realism” but it’s not that healthy for storytelling, limiting the scope and experience to the dire, tender, heart-wrenching.
Viggo Mortenson is “the man”, and looks very convincing as the sick-in-body, starving father, fighting for his and his son’s survival. Kodi Smit-McPhee is quite strong as “the boy”. And really, it’s hard to discredit much of what’s actually put together onscreen for this film.
It kind of amazed me that they managed to squeeze in some product placement in this film, but producers are miracle workers of a kind. I also would like to note the appearance of Guy Pearce toward the end of the film, simply because he is a very interesting actor who seems drawn to good films and doesn’t seem to care how big or small his role is (e.g., The Hurt Locker (2008)).
But I had a hard time staying focused on this film. And I wasn’t all that blown away by the book either. I understand it’s considered by McCarthy fans as one of his weaker books, so I will have to explore the ones that I’ve heard are better. And as for apocalyptical visions, I’ll chalk this one up as one of the harshest and most lacking in humor that I have ever seen. Good luck with it if you are interested.