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.