Review of The Road:
Based on Cormac McCarthy.‘s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road is set an unspecified time (probably ten to twelve years) after an apocalyptic event, all vegetation and animal life has died. A man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travel south to the coast to try and survive the oncoming winter. Along the way they have to survive the problems associated with the end of civilisation, and with it possibly the end of humanity.
Directed by John Hillcoat whose last film was the brilliant Nick Cave penned The Proposition (2005). Cave is back onboard again providing a great musical score with the help of “Bad Seed” Warren Ellis. The direction is sublime resisting the temptation to increase the pace and turn the movie into an action flick. Done well there is nothing wrong with action movies, but it wouldn’t have fitted this story. This is not a Roland Emmerich or Michael bay extravaganza, we don’t see CGI destruction of recognisable landmarks. We come in at the aftermath and see humanity hanging on from a disaster that wasn’t saved at the eleventh hour. The film is beautifully shot making the characters place in the dying landscape all the more harrowing. The images are almost devoid of colour with a grey and grimy look to everything, both the people and the places. This makes the contrast to the bright colourful and lush flashbacks of before the apocalypse even more disturbing and effective.
The casting is also perfect, Viggo Mortensen is proving to be one of the best actors working at the moment. Having been around appearing in movies and TV shows since the mid 80’s, The Lord of the Rings (2002-2003) made him a movie star, A History of Violence (2005) and Good (2008) reminded us that he is a great actor. Hopefully The Road will reinforce that he is both. Kodi Smit-McPheeis is also perfect as the boy, he gives a powerful and nuanced but most importantly believable performance. As well as a great performance he also looks the part having a striking resemblance to Charlize Theron who plays his mother. There are also memorable cameos from Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce. The film is episodic showing us small parts of the pairs journey interwoven with a few flashbacks to frame the story. The narrative is held together by a voiceover by Mortensen’s character. Voiceovers often don’t work, think the original version of Blade Runner, but in this case it is perfect, possibly even essential to the film.
Early on in the movie the voiceover tells us “ Each day is more gray than the one before. Each night is darker – beyond darkness. The world gets colder week by week as the world slowly dies. No animals have survived. All the crops are long gone” if you didn’t already know it is clear this isn’t a typical Hollywood story of hope or redemption. Let me repeat that to ensure you didn’t miss it “as the world slowly dies”. The thin thread of hope is found in The Boy, Mortensen’s characters son. He has absorbed the life and moral lessons taught to him by his farther and is now able to pass them back to his farther and the audience providing a moral compass for the movie. Born after the event he has no knowledge of the world we know other than through his farther , for that reason, if there is any future for humanity it is through him and people like him. Along the road they come across the two extremes of society, people worse of than themselves at one end and people who have turned their back on their humanity in favour of survival at any cost. The characters they meet are actually less important than their reaction to them. The man is desperate to avoid human contact as he can’t trust anyone and thinks it is the best way to survive, his son is desperate for contact to justify their existence.
The thing that always seems to link road movies is an existential subtext, there is nothing more existential than the exploration of mortality. In The Road the exploration of mortality is not of the protagonists but of the human race as a whole. There is also a strong theme of fraternity and brotherhood that is best demonstrated by the final scenes, although this requires the viewer to think back to earlier scenes (clue remember the dog it is important). While the subject matter may be depressing, it is to the credit of the filmmakers that the film itself is far from depressing. Many viewers expecting a fast paced or even action movie will be disappointed, in this regard it could be a victim of its own marketing. If you look beyond this or go into the film with the right mindset you may find it hugely rewarding.
A question for people who have seen the movie:
What is the apocalyptic event in the movie? Is it a nuclear war and the subsequent fallout and nuclear winter? Has an asteroid hit the earth causing a giant dust cloud? Are the problems ecological? Although the nature of the apocalypse is hinted at rather than explained viewers will draw their own conclusion and as such will read the film differently. What did you take from it?