Thursday, July 15, 2010

Movie Review: The Road

Director: John Hillcoat

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Garret Dillahunt, Michael K. Williams, Molly Parker

"The Road" is a hopeful movie. Sure, it's set in a barren and scorched post-apocalyptic wasteland that used to be America, and, yes, it seems like most of the survivors of an unnamed catastrophe have teamed up to become roving bands of cannibals. But there is a fire that burns in the heart of this nightmarish vision. It's the fire of a father's love for his son and for the belief that there are still "good guys" out there who'll want to carry on in the face of seemingly unending horror.

Don't expect a sappy, overly sentimental two hours, though, and fans of Cormac McCarthy's novel should be satisfied, although the movie just misses the complete emotional devastation the book provides. Director John Hillcoat is exceptionally faithful to the brutal, uncompromising vision in the source material. Ash and soot cover everything. Water is gray and undrinkable without some very crude purification. Highways and bridges are shattered and abandoned. Every town's a ghost town, and the rare house that may still be occupied might just have a storeroom full of maimed people being kept alive for food.

The relationship between the nameless father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is also true to the book, only it's accented by expanded flashbacks to the man and boy's time with their mother (Theron), who walked to her death one night a few years after the catastrophe. The emotional interplay between the father and the boy is intense and genuine, especially considering that they're barely surviving on the road, scavenging whatever scraps of food, including bugs, they can get, dodging cannibal gangs, and struggling for any warmth in what looks like a nuclear winter. When the father holds a gun to his son's head as he prepares to spare the boy from an especially grisly fate worse than death, you believe he'll pull the trigger if it comes down to it. 

Mortensen's face is a mask of tired anguish throughout the movie. It's as if his character's exhausted from being prepared to do nearly anything to survive and anything to spare his boy from unspeakable horrors. He doesn't trust anyone, even a frail, old wanderer (a barely recognizable Robert Duvall), and is driven to cruelty at times. When he catches up to a thief (Michael K. Williams, better known as Omar from "The Wire") who has stolen just about everything from them, he isn't merely satisfied with getting their stuff back. He strips the thief of every stitch of clothes on his back, leaving him naked and alone. This doesn't sit well with the boy, who, despite having only experienced this horrible, mostly dead world, is full of grace and charity. That's how he interprets his father's repeated declaration that he's "carrying the fire," and Smit-McPhee makes it clear with the quiet, confident force of his performance.

Plotwise, "The Road" sticks to the simple, episodic path set by the novel. The man and the boy are heading south towards the coast to find more "good guys" like them, but they mostly find "bad guys." Yet, they persist, not unlike Christ in a Passion play. Their painful mission may seem like an irrational one, but there's nothing rational or easy about faith or love, which are rewarded in the end. Yeah, I guess you could call it a happy ending, but it's still plenty open-ended. After all, the world is ruined, and there's no magical deus ex machina to make it all better. Still, it's pretty hard to finish this movie without at least one or two tears of hard-earned happiness in your eyes.

Rating: ****1/2 out of five

("The Road" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.)

1 comment:

  1. love love love this film. it devastated me.


Go ahead, say something.