The Road (2009)
By: Mr Intolerance on July 14, 2010  | 
Icon | Region 4, PAL | 2.35:1 (16:9 ehnaced) | English DD 5.1 | 107 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: John Hillcoat
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron
Screenplay: Joe Penhall
Country: USA
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Based on the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, probably America's current premier man of letters and the natural successor to the likes of Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway, The Road is a literate, intelligent and ambitious film that somehow doesn't quite work. Writer Joe Penhall's script for one, doesn't cut it – while I never expect a film to be a 100% mimetic representation of the novel it's based on, he never achieves the searing intimacy, desperation and lack of communication in the relationship between the two main characters that McCarthy managed so effortlessly – and so the centrepiece of the film is left amidst blank, pleading looks, trudging through what appears to be the same stretch of an abandoned turnpike in Pennsylvania, peppered with occasional shouting.

Sorry – to backtrack a little for those who've been living under a rock for the last four years. The Road is the story of a post-apocalypse America, and the people who manage to barely eke out a living on its now barren plains and rotting communities. We're never told what the apocalypse actually was, and we never see it, apart from an oblique reference to lights and sounds at the start of the film. The Man (Viggo Mortensen, actually managing to top his career-defining performance in Eastern Promises) and The Boy (newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee – many people rate his performance, to me it was just one-note, and a pretty shrill note, at that) are a father and son who are slowly working their way as far south as they can, chasing warmth. Y'see, after the apocalypse the US (and presumably the world) is blanketed by ash and smoke, and so it's goodbye sun – with the result that every other living thing on the planet besides humanity, dies. And as the twilight fades ever more from view, the planet gets colder, and colder and colder.

The humans who do remain are either scavenging nomads like our travelling dysfunctional family roadshow, scrabbling around in the ruins of the past for scraps of what's been left behind, or have become cannibals, imprisoning people to use as food – given that now nothing grows and there's no fish or game or livestock. Pretty grim stuff. The Man and The Boy's only protection is an aging revolver with two bullets – one apiece in case things become even more desperate than they already are. But The Man is determined to survive at any cost, and have his boy survive along with him, and tries to teach his son some pretty harsh lessons in how to stay alive now and in the future along their journey.

Well, that's on the surface, anyway. Scratch a little deeper and you'll see that The Road is a densely symbolic film that operates more effectively in a figurative sense than it ever could literally. The America The Man and The Boy move through is America now, not in some post-apocalyptic future. We've already turned our planet into a toilet, and so the flashbacks that we see of life before the apocalypse or only slightly after it (tinged in a golden sepia light for the better part, evoking a sense of nostalgia for a better time) recall a time before the current ecological nightmare the Earth is becoming. The dead grey crumbling trees, the barren landscapes The Man and The Boy move through, the desolate coldness – we did that, the text is implying pretty strongly. In her environmental protest song "Big Yellow Taxi", Joni Mitchell once sang, "They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot." In The Road, director John Hillcoat seems to be saying, "They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot. Then they set fire to the parking lot, shoved the whole thing into a nuclear reactor made from those old non-biodegradable Styrofoam containers from McDonalds set for meltdown, and shot the whole bloody thing off into the sun. That's how little regard the human race has for the planet." Okay, that's a little silly, but there are times when the finely balanced level of credibility with this film teeters ever so slightly into the nonsensical. The despair becomes exaggerated – when you're working at this extremely heightened pitch of emotion, that's always going to be a danger, and as good as Viggo Mortensen's performance is in this regard (and it is very good), to my mind he's let down (to varying degrees) by everyone else around him with the exception of Robert Duvall. If The Man represents a system that didn't work due to a single-mindedness about self and family that borders on the solipsistic, then Duvall as The Old Man (calling himself Ely, a Biblical link that shouldn't be lost on the audience) is even more out of step with the time. His Old Testament ravings about apocalypse and failing to recognise omens locks him firmly in a past that simply can't exist in the present.

I'm not blind to the grimness of their situation (Hillcoat wouldn't let me be, with the gun as an obtrusive symbol of the old-fashioned practically Wild West way of America dealing with its problems – the hint that we should be using other methods to try to survive through The Boy's reaction to it was painfully obvious; ditto the sequence when The Man tutors The Boy in the most effective way to commit suicide with the pistol), but you need light to have shade – or more accurately, to make shade more effective. Similarly, The Man's "tough love" way of dealing with their situation, again working on the link back to an older, more conservative US mindset, and his lack of trust of others recalling American laissez-faire attitude to world politics between the wars, and then the paranoia and inhumanity of HUAC and the Communist witch-hunts in the 50s, where violence, disenfranchisement and persecution were the solutions for domestic strife. The Boy represents a conscience, and the fine ideals the US states in its constitution, but sometimes fails to recognise on a world stage.

And the road itself? The journey America has to make from its past to its future, the elusive, ephemeral concept of "home" – the ailing Man (representing the old America unable to make a transition from the "me-generation" of days gone past) and the hopeful, more humane Boy who still possesses genuine empathy for others somehow forging something new and better for everyone. The road trip to me is a quintessentially American genre of text. I'm not saying that it's only made well by Americans (Bruce Robinson's English comedy Withnail & I proves me wrong straight away), but it is a genre, like the Western – a genre from which it sprang, that is an indivisible part of modern American culture, from Jack Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson's groundbreaking novels On The Road and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas respectively (or really, from The Wizard Of Oz, if you want to split hairs – probably the first road movie any of us ever saw as kids), through to more existential, borderline nihilistic films like Two-Lane Blacktop, Easy Rider and Vanishing Point; the physical destination is never the important part, it's what happens on the way for the participants that really matters. And in any of those texts mentioned, it's the wider implication for America as a nation that is where meaning is ultimately found. Think, for example, about the first time you saw the ending of Easy Rider, and the brutal, self-destructive nature of the conservative elements in the US that film warned of. The Road almost makes Easy Rider seem like a prophecy, in retrospect.

To me, that's where The Road really makes its stand. Generational misunderstanding is a theme in films of the last 60 years that's been dealt with over and over again, an addressing of the flaws of the past while still showing a concern over the potential recklessness of youth. And on that note, while the film works very well as a text of ideas, it fails at the same time as a narrative. The story-telling elements are largely forsaken – the events of the novel are sometimes switched about in order and losing some of their impact, or in the instance of the "cannibal house" scene, over-dramatised so as to lose credibility. One thing I will say about the novel is that McCarthy never lost sight of the fact that understatement is always more effective in telling a story.

Last thing: one other weakness I found in the film was the reliance in the first act to flashbacks to when The Boy and The Man still lived at home with The Wife (Charlize Theron). This was barely alluded to in the novel, as the focus was placed firmly on the relationship between father and son (America, like most western nations, is still a patriarchal society, after all), which is where it should have stayed here. While the novel itself is quite episodic and bitsy, it didn't harm the flow of the story itself, and I thought that the opposite was true here – the flashbacks gave a disjointed feel to the film, and robbed it of a small part of its punch, and certainly its tautness.
The picture quality is quite superb, presented to you in anamorphic cinemascope. The colour palette is kept limited to dark blues, grays, blacks and browns, which fits in well with the sombre emotional tone of the film, and emphasises the oppressive bleakness. When you do actually see some colour on-screen, it's almost shocking.
The sound design and the score are definitely worthy of note – one of the strongest elements of the film, particularly in the conveying of emotion and the tangible sense of dread that permeates The Road (even more so than some of the acting, if I'm to be honest) – comes from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' work on the soundtrack. Not a note is wasted, and the silence becomes an intrinsic part of what you hear.
Extra Features
There's a brief but okay "Making Of", a picture gallery and then probably the most interesting Extra, an interview with John Hillcoat about directing the film called "Walking Into Darkness", which offered a few insights into his approach to adapting, let's face it, a pretty daunting novel into a film. Trailers, trailers, trazailers – and ones you can't bypass with a menu button (but let's all be thankful for a chapter selection button, eh?): Edge Of Darkness, Triangle, Precious (I truly hope I never see this film – the trailer was so saccharine it would kill a diabetic from twenty paces), and the PS3 game Heavy Rain. The lack of director commentary surprised me, truth be told.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
A lot has been written about The Road, and a lot of that to me has been hyperbole. Is it a good film? Undoubtedly. I'd strongly suggest that if you've not seen it, you should make every attempt to do so, as soon as humanly possible - I guarantee that you will never forget it. While it's rare that such an intelligent film received a mainstream cinema (and now DVD) release in this country, it's very nature will undoubtedly, and unfortunately, limit its appeal to a niche market. It's too bleak to be marketed as an examination of the family unit, or a coming of age film (despite possessing elements of both), and the lack of sci-fi elements pulls it away from more narrow-minded genre fans. Where does that leave it? Like Hillcoat's previous films, standing in a class by itself, and that can tend to scare some audiences away.

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