Monday, December 21, 2009
John Hillcoat's The Road is a fascinating, complex tale that is certainly one of the best post-apocalyptic films I've seen. Along with Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Hillcoat's film is one of the toughest adaptations of the year. It is based upon a Cormac McCarthy novel, and it is obvious to the viewer that the novel must have been very light on dialogue. Although I haven't read the book, it seems that it was very successful, and in large part due to McCarthy's language. It is impossible for a film to succeed using the power of prose and language, so Hillcoat relies on his devastating atmosphere and haunting performances to carry the weight; and everything works.
The film is set in a post-apocalyptic America in which crops have disappeared, oceans turned gray, and trees burned down. It is a world without hope and Hillcoat makes sure you know it. Viggo Mortensen stars in an incredible performance as The Man. He and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travel alone, heading south and towards the coast in hope of something. Their deceased wife and mother (Charlize Theron) is seen in several flashbacks in which it appears her relationship with her husband was a very shaky one. Both The Man and his son are haunted by her "disappearance" and we sense that her not being there could account for just as much of the family's depression as the bleak atmosphere does.
One of the ways in which Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall get across their message of desperation is through the cannibalistic groups that roam the streets. Food is but a distant memory to most of the people still alive, and it's terrifying to watch The Man try and protect himself and his son from these groups. They're not bad people, but desperate people. They need food, and a young boy looks as good as anything available.
During their journey, they run into very few people that aren't interesting in eating them, and one of them is the Old Man played by Robert Duvall. The Man is very hesitant to travel with someone else, but his son convinces him to help out this clearly frail man, at least for the time being. There is a very interesting exchange between Mortensen and Duvall in which we find out how cynical The Man has become. The world has turned into such a dark and violent place that The Man has completely given up faith in trusting anyone besides himself and his boy.
The atmospheric presence of this film is breathtaking. On a modest budget, Hillcoat is able to evoke the feel of a hopeless world. It is a very bleak film to look at, but it is strangely beautiful in a way. The overwhelming presence of gray represents this film perfectly. I don't think I've ever seen a film that goes nowhere be so powerful.
This is not a film about hope. Yes, these two people are traveling in search of something, but Hillcoat makes it clear that there is really nothing to find. It seems that their destination is only a way for them to think that their situation can improve. What makes this film so fascinating is how it makes you think about life and death. How bad does life have to be to make it not worth living? Characters throughout this film contemplate committing suicide, and it's impossible to blame them. It's heartbreaking to watch Mortensen's character fight so hard to protect his son only for the boy to tell him he wants to die at the end of the day.
Think about the situation of the main characters here and think about why they are trying so hard to survive. They are under constant pressure to defend themselves. They are walking dozens of miles a day, trying to get closer and closer to...what? In the end, there is really nothing for them to live for, yet they fight so admirably to stay alive. I can't imagine a tougher predicament.
Regardless of the potent philosophical nature of the film and the fascinating America that the director has brought to life, this is a film that relies a lot on the performances, and they are very good. In only a few scenes, Charlize Theron gives a performance that sticks with us throughout the film. She has a very crucial role early on, and it is important to understand and feel how much she's impacted these two main characters.
Mortensen and McPhee both give performances worthy of Oscar nominations. The lack of dialogue in McCarthy's novel is very evident, but the emotions here comes out in bunches. Mortensen is the intense, determined father trying to protect his kid and prove to him that there is hope on the horizon. McPhee gives a very effective performance in what I think is the emotional core of this film. If the child doesn't think his life is worth living, then what possible chance does this world have?
I'm still trying to get a feel for why this film is floating under the horizon. It seems to have been passed over by critics as a solid film, but nothing more. Perhaps the constant bleakness is a turn-off for people, but what do you expect from a film of this subject matter? Hillcoat isn't interested in improving the conditions of the America he has created; he is interested in seeing how The Man and his son react in a world without hope. How hard will they fight to live? This is a very profound film.