Movie Review: The Road
By Matthew Huntley
December 11, 2009
The Road is one of the most absorbing films I've seen about the post-apocalyptic world, and I've seen a lot of them. Just two weeks ago, Hollywood also delivered the overblown 2012, but in all fairness to that movie, this one is about life after the apocalypse, not the apocalypse itself, although trees do randomly fall down at one point.
Why do films like The Road (and to a lesser extent 2012) consistently engage us? Why are we so eager to see our world come to an end? Is it because we assume it's all just fantasy and nothing like this could ever really happen? Or are we inherently intrigued by our own vulnerability and fascinated by death and destruction?
Despite the psychology behind why we're drawn to it, The Road is a ceaselessly engrossing picture. It's dark, grim and unwholesome, but intentionally so. It's also exceptionally well made and entertaining (and by entertaining, I mean it incites a deeply thoughtful response). Like the Cormac McCarthy novel (unread by me, but not for long), this is a grave and serious story that doesn't place its characters in the usual Hollywood fantasyland full of super villains, stunt-filled action sequences, high speed chases or battle-filled climaxes. Not that such qualities can't make for exciting cinema (see the Mad Max series), but never before have I seen a film about the end of the world so effectively sad, brutal and (probably) realistic. What would life be like if the world was a barren wasteland and humans lived according to their most primitive instincts? Unfortunately, it would probably be a lot like the world of The Road.
The film follows a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they travel side by side from the northern United States to an unknown destination in the South. The father probably assumes it will be warmer there and he'll be able to delay whatever fate awaits him and his boy, whom he believes is a sign from God. There once was a mother (Charlize Theron), but she's only seen in flashbacks, and at various points along their journey, the two meet an old man who is going blind (Robert Duvall), a thief (Michael K. Williams) and another father (Guy Pearce).
But the film isn't about the people they meet, the places they go or the danger they encounter. The Road doesn't really even have a plot; it's more about its theme, which is about surviving one day at a time against all odds and the only thing driving you is the idea there's something worth living for, even if you're not sure what that is. In this world, everything is rotting (the trees, the crops); it's always cold; it's always raining; and nobody shows remorse (almost nobody). But the father cannot let his son believe there's no more hope. He reminds the boy of the fire burning inside him and the father only wants the boy to realize it's there.
Like the novel, the screenplay by Joe Penhall is episodic in the way it shows the father-son team move from one location to the next. No event feels connected to the other or has a distinct consequence like a traditional narrative. If it adhered to our expectations or typical thriller conventions, the characters might be constantly running from the same villain, or the boy might be kidnapped, or the father would perform death-defying stunts. It might also end with an absolution that wraps things up optimistically. But director John Hillcoat isn't interested in conventions; he'd rather capture the mood and tension associated with the characters' uncertain future. He places us deep within their situation so we feel what they feel and empathize with them uncompromisingly. Watching this film, I actually felt cold, hungry, exhausted, afraid and fatigued, just like the characters. Such a visceral effect isn't easy to achieve on film.
While Hillcoat deserves all praise for his storytelling techniques, the film's most lasting impact comes from its look, thanks to the production design, art direction and set design by Chris Kennedy, Gershon Ginsberg and Robert Greenfield. Everything you see in frame is stark and merciless. It so distinguishable (and in some ways beautiful) I found myself hypnotized by such nuances as the marks on the walls and random debris in people's abandoned lawns. The effort taken to present this world as utterly defeated and decimated is remarkable.
Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe captures it all in grandiose wide shots, which do anything but make the landscape look enticing. And with the dark photography, the visual effects appear even more seamless, as I was unable to tell what was real and what was computer-generated. Luckily, this inability placed me deeper within the story.
The Road is not a film I'd watch to make myself feel happy. It's brooding and depressing, which is likely the point, but such stories tend to stimulate profound, reflective thoughts, and this one is no exception. Did McCarthy write this as a rebuttal to all the sensationalist, end-of-the-world media that glorifies destruction and mayhem? Is his novel (and now the movie) a caveat to the way things might become if we don't start taking better care of our planet (it's interesting how we're never given any explanation of apocalypse; the only thing that matters is it happened)? Whatever McCarthy's agenda, he laid the groundwork for Hillcoat's effective and indelible film. It's one that affects us in a way few films do.