Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Where the Sun Don't Ever Shine: The Road


The Road begins where movies like Roland Emmerich’s 2012 leave off. Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, the film is set in a world of utter devastation. Skies are charcoal gray. Trees are bare and decaying. Ash covers the ground in many places and in others the few remaining bits of dry foliage wait to become tinder for the next wildfire. Earth as we know is falling apart – has fallen apart – and this time no near escapes, or cute remarks or fantastical CGI spectacles can distract from the ugly truth. Within this dreary landscape walk a father and son, defying the odds by scouring for their sustenance at a time when the best way to survive is to feast on other survivors. Together they roam, south by southeast, toward the sea, not because there’s any solid reason to think that things are better there but because things can only get worse where they are. Triumphantly, they are alive. But are they living?

That question seems to be the one at the heart of John Hillcoat’s film from a screenplay by Joe Penhall. Viggo Mortensen plays the father and Kodi Smit-McPhee the son and together they create a touching portrait of love, hope and dedication that burns like one of those wildfires. Alas, their bond is overshadowed by a deep seated sense of vulnerability – one so constant and palpable that it makes the father and son’s beacon of hope feel like a neon sign lighting the way for those who would do them harm. Whether this was Hillcoat’s (or McCarthy’s) intent, I cannot say (I haven’t read the novel). What I can say is that it took only one brush with a band of roving cannibals to make it darn near impossible for me to focus on anything else. In The Road, the land is barren but the unrelenting threat of human-induced atrocity is suffocating. If Hillcoat’s objective is to make the audience identify with a parent’s fear and sense of ultimate helplessness, he succeeds and then some.

Trouble is, I’m not convinced that’s Hillcoat’s objective. While the film’s air of peril never goes away, not even in the handful of scenes in which the father and son seem oblivious to it, The Road is more active in exploring the principles of living. Its implicit question goes something like this: At what point is your own life not worth saving? For the father, value in life can be traced back to one’s will to live – “carrying the fire,” he calls it. He tells his son that they must also remain among the “good guys,” meaning that they would never resort to hunting humans to survive, but by the end of the film you might question whether the father would keep from crossing that line if his son were dying in his arms. The Road reveals a man slowly but surely slipping toward desperation. With good reason. So committed is the man to protecting his child that he is willing to cut ties with his pre-catastrophe life, more than 10 years ago, lest the memories weigh him down like an anchor. Meanwhile, the son has higher standards. For him being one of the “good guys” means more than avoiding becoming one of the bad guys. It means actually being good and, even more, trusting that others are capable of good as well. At times the son’s stance seams not only idealistic but also imperative; there are too many dangers for two people to combat on their own. But the father’s skepticism isn’t without merit; if he were as trusting as his son suggests they should be, both of them would have been dead long ago.

The Road so convincingly evokes the importance of companionship in survival situations that it makes the sight of loners feel farfetched (not just because one of the loners is so old and frail that you’d figure the “bad guys” would have pounced on him like tigers on a turtle). The father and son don’t just help one another live, they give one another reason to live. Sometimes their bond is their only nourishment. Mortensen spends most of the film hidden behind a gnarly beard and in filthy, tattered clothes, and it’s to his tremendous credit that he’s content to stay there. This is not a performance that wows you, but it’s not a performance that should. The barely-surviving are rarely theatrical, and so Mortensen stays inward, trusting subtle vocal inflections and his soulful eyes to evoke the spiritual war inside the man. It works. Charlize Theron plays his wife in occasional flashbacks, but we learn more about the father’s feelings of sadness, loss and fear by watching him in the present. The scene in which the father stands on an elevated stretch of roadway nudging his wedding ring toward the edge of the barricade is the film’s most poignant moment. We ache for the man’s past, present and future all at once. It’s a small scene, as most in The Road seem to be, but it’s one of the best scenes in cinema this year. (The same could be said of the sequence in which the father and son enjoy long overdue baths.)

Alas, The Road isn’t an altogether memorable film, most likely because the story’s black clouds – digital and metaphorical – are too successful at blocking out the light. The compositions of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe are so dark that a Coca-Cola can pops off the screen like the little girl in the red coat walking through the otherwise black-and-white Schindler’s List. If you thought McCarthy creation Anton Chigurh was an unstoppable, omnipresent evil, you don’t know the half of it. In The Road, even cocoons of safety leave us preoccupied with the thin barrier between utopia and dystopia. Mortensen and Smit-McPhee have a tremendous chemistry that this film never quite allows us to appreciate. The suffering here is well earned, believable and never exploitive or vindictive. But it’s also unending, making The Road a difficult film to get close to. It provides a clear depiction of the worst tendencies of man, and it provides as much hope as one could expect to find while remaining true to this bleak premise. But more than anything, The Road provides a lot of gray.

16 comments:

Hokahey said...

This is a hard movie to review. You point out the visual elements and the acting - which are superb - but the nature of the story is a tricky one.

"If you thought McCarthy creation Anton Chigurh was an unstoppable, omnipresent evil, you don’t know the half of it. In The Road, even cocoons of safety leave us preoccupied with the thin barrier between utopia and dystopia."

That's for sure and well said.

You also point out the ring scene. I wish I had referred to it in my review; it's superb.

I liked this movie a lot - but I loved the novel so much more. What does the book have that the movie doesn't? McCarthy's prose. It's HOW he says it that grips you more, touches you more, and leaves you more affected. Hillcoat just doesn't say it the same way.

Sam Juliano said...

"Skies are charcoal gray. Trees are bare and decaying. Ash covers the ground in many places and in others the few remaining bits of dry foliage wait to become tinder for the next wildfire. Earth as we know is falling apart – has fallen apart – and this time no near escapes, or cute remarks or fantastical CGI spectacles can distract from the ugly truth."

Nice writing there!

This film was a major disappointment, and it appears you had some issues, which you craftily incorporate into your overall erception of the aesthetic and physical details. This was one novel I actually have read (don't generally have time to read novels these days) and I've been waiting for this film. The book had stroo nger continuity and flow, while this film is detatched, episodic and and one note, with (as you yourself note--you use the term farfetched) the supporting characters, especially Robert Duvall, who is almost laughable. Hillcoat's spare screenplay gives way to pervading ghoulishness, which has resulted in some critics calling this a "horror" film, a contention that isn't much off the mark, and I don't say this in a good sense.

This is quite a superb sensory essay.

Adam Zanzie said...

See, I didn't share Sam's diappointment- I think The Road is one of the year's finest films and by far the most emotionally devastating. As of now it's at #2 on my unfinished list; only A Serious Man tops it.

After a rather banal year of overhyped entertainments like The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds that are sure to get some bigtime Oscar nominations next year, here was John Hillcoat finally serving us up with an epic that feels so true. It falls short of the surrealist power of McCarthy's novel, but I was astonished that Hillcoat and Penhall even got that far. Mortensen gets better and better with each performance, too.

I wish the film had a higher Metacritic score.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, fellas.

Hokahey: What does the book have that the movie doesn't? McCarthy's prose.

I figure that's true. I figure also that in the book it's easier to focus on the relationship between the father and son, when that's what's being described, rather than being distracted by their vulnerability. Every time they lit a fire at night, I was sure it was going to bring the "bad guys" upon them.

Sam: Thanks for the compliments.

The book wasn't a disappointment for me because I'm one of the few on the planet who hasn't read the book, so I didn't go in with expectations. That said ...

The book had stronger continuity and flow, while this film is detatched, episodic and and one note...

That's a good observation. The film is a little one note. I think it could have done with one less "bad guys" encounter. They happen so frequently in the movie that it's amazing these two could last a month, never mind years. Though maybe the implication is that it used to be safer when there was still food to be found. Anyway, there is kind of a rinse-and-repeat feel to the action here.

Adam: The Road is ... by far the most emotionally devastating

I wish I could say I agreed. Things are so bleak from the start that I didn't really find my horror increasing as things went. And, as I've mentioned, I was so preoccupied by the threat of attack that I don't think I connected with the film very well on an emotional level.

I second your praise of Mortensen, however. No other actor working today is so willing to act small, if you will, to stay inward. To look at Duvall's performance here is to understand all the ways Mortensen could have screwed it up. But he doesn't. He's so good he's almost boring. That's a compliment.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks very much Jason. Again this was quite a thought-provoking piece in every sense.

Adam, I do agree with you on A SERIOUS MAN, which at this point is only topped by Jane Campion's BRIGHT STAR, although several other films (35 SHOTS OF RUM, UP, ANTI-CHRIST, SUMMER HOURS and an emotionally devastating film I saw last night, directed by Tom Ford called A SIMPLE MAN all are bunched up near the top, requiring some sure-to-be-frustrating numerical placement.
And STAR TREK will definitely be making my Top 10 too, with DISTRICT 9, SOMERS TOWN, and the yet-unseen THE WHITE RIBBON as strong possibities. It's the special time of the year where we all lose our minds! Ha!
I liked THE HURT LOCKER more than you, but I'm with you on INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and I'll add UP IN THE AIR prominently to that underwhelmed category.

I greatly look forward to Jason's (and Adam's) year-end roundup. And Hokahey's too.

Jason Bellamy said...

Indeed. And I just realize in my previous comment I said "the book wasn't a disappointment ..." (which is true, since I haven't read it), when I meant the film, obviously. Arg!

Mercer Finn said...

I read the novel this year, and from your review it looks like the filmmakers have done a really good job on it. Really looking forward to seeing it.

Daniel Getahun said...

"The compositions of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe are so dark that a Coca-Cola can pops off the screen like the little girl in the red coat walking through the otherwise black-and-white Schindler’s List."

Ha, that's exactly right, and yet in one way it serve to make the audience almost taste it. I think Hokahey mentioned something like that in his review.

Nice mention of the ring scene - I'd forgotten how well done that was.

I like your thoughts about the need for companionship, but I was left wondering why the Father was so hopeful in the first place? I'd have like to learn where he was getting that spiritual strength, whether from religion, or some important life experience or something. One could say he was in it altruistically to continue his bloodline and save his son, but that just doesn't seem like the only factor.

Matt Maul said...

Jason...I read your review with great interest. We're not as far apart as I had thought we were (although I suppose I was a bit more negative in my House post).

To sum up, my take was a like Arbogast toward Norman's story in Psycho..."if it doesn't jell it isn't aspic."

Daniel Getahun...my impression from the book was that the father was totally motivated by the need to save his son before he died. Toward the end, he was clearly abandoning the altruistic platitudes he had been sharing with the boy throughout their various ordeals (as witnessed by the scene with the thief).

Daniel Getahun said...

Matt, I've accepted that theory put forth by others about the father's sole motivation being his son, but there seems to be more to it than that, even going back further to his interactions with his wife. This guy is a really positive spirit in the overwhelming darkness and (not speaking as a father myself), he seems to be driven by something more than just the desire to see his son survive - particularly since he knows he will not be able to see his son survive, or if there is any good left in the world at all for him to survive in anyway (unless he had some telepathic communication with the other "good guys" left in the world).

Matt Maul said...

he seems to be driven by something more than just the desire to see his son survive - particularly since he knows he will not be able to see his son survive, or if there is any good left in the world at all for him to survive in

I'm not trying to play the "parent" card, honest. But I think that being a father of four myself is why the book stuck so strong a cord in me. I identified with the protectiveness and love the father displays for what is his basically helpless child. Part of McCarthy's inspiration for The Road was having a child at a relatively older age and knowing that he'd probably be gone before the child had "grown up."

This was why I felt expanding the mother's role for the film was a distraction from the father/son dynamic. Though, I have to admit that even if the mother's part had been cut down to how it appeared in the book, I'm not sure that it would have made a difference in my reaction to the movie (I didn't think it translated very well).

As to the father's morality and altruism, I read that as an outgrowth of him being a doctor. Again, he certainly passed that "torch" to the boy but, I'd argue, the fire had ceased to burn within him.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the continued thoughtful comments.

Touching on what Daniel is alluding to, my own reading of the father is that he is certainly driven by his own fire. That is, I believe at the beginning he doesn't want to give up because he's just not a quitter, and he wants to live because he's a survivor. And of course, touching on Matt's points, he's a protector. And that's why I do enjoy the scenes with the mother, because he's trying to protect her, too. But when she gives up, he turns all his attention to the boy. It gives him a purpose and noble task. And he just can't quit on his son.

From Matt's comments, I'm sure the film is slightly off balance from the novel. I don't think the film quite evokes the spirit of the father needing to raise his boy before he dies. Or maybe it doesn't work as well on screen as it does on the page. Maybe on the screen the pure, simple need to survive can't help but become the focus.

I agree with you, Matt. I don't think we're too far off. I think The Road will seem a bit more profound to me the second time around, whenever that comes. It's still one of the best films in a rather disappointing year...at least according to me.

Daniel Getahun said...

Well we can agree that the year has been disappointing, even if we don't agree where this one lands.

I must have somehow missed or forgotten the fact that he is a doctor, which certainly sheds some light on his personal character and altruistic traits. Also, I certainly understand where you're coming from, Matt - that's not the parent card, it's just your life experience in relation to this and I think it's great that it resonated with you (the book, if not as much the film).

Jake said...

I had a curious reaction to the film. It hinges entirely on Hillcoat's direction and Mortensen and Smit-McPhee's acting, and all three are stellar. But the script is angular and jagged where the book was constantly building and visceral. Even my notes on the film weren't very memorable. Overall I kind of liked it, but I couldn't help but be somewhat disappointed.

Information Review said...

McCarthy's book is well written and gripping. The movie does a good, but not great job of capturing the spirit of the book.

Good review

Generic Cialis said...

It is indeed a deep and profound movie, I enjoyed but I don't know why it leave a big impact on my girl.