Saturday, 11 June 2011

Review of 'The Road' (John Hillcoat, 2009)

Synopsis: Father and son travel a long, long road, battling the elements, cannibals, starvation and the temptation for suicide in post-apocalyptic America.

According to Hollywood the world’s going to end very soon. Not sure how, not sure why… all that’s clear is that civilization will crumble and only a few survivors will be left. As if the idea of the decimation of most of the world’s population isn’t depressing enough, John Hillcoat’s The Road plunges the viewer into the desperate, hopeless struggle of a father and son to survive against misery, despair and the degenerate remnants of humanity. For much of its run time, the film is unrelentingly bleak, pessimistic and difficult to enjoy. Sadness and hopelessness bleeds from every frame. Still, for fans of drama, this film is a real tearjerker. Stick with its slow pace for a rewarding ending that may surprise with its glimmer of hope after all the preceding misery.
T he Road is unlikely to appeal to fans of other recent post-apocalyptic cinema such as I am Legend, The Book of Eli and Terminator Salvation, but if viewers are willing to succumb to its mounting sense of despair and forget about action set-pieces, there is plenty here to, perhaps enjoy is not the right word… but… appreciate.

The plot is barren like the landscape the protagonists are travelling. Like Lord of the Rings, there is a great deal of walking to be done (only this time Aragorn does a hell of a lot less fighting along the way). This is road trip without the girls, drugs, good times with great friends or even a sodding car. So much of the film is just the man and his son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) walking, occasionally talking and grimacing at the cold, the hunger and the fear of strangers on the titular road. The two leads carry the film, helped only briefly by interludes of flashbacks/dreams that add to the overwhelming sense of despair coursing through the veins of the film. In these flashbacks Charlize Theron has a thankless but memorable role as suicidal wife and mother that adds to the hopelessness of it all. The flashback structure adds to the poignancy of the central relationship between the father and son and reminds the viewer of the determination of the pair to survive. Cameos from Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce and other assorted travelling folk (some friends, some foes) add interest to what could become a stale, repetitive and unbearably slow and depressing slog.

Duvall is fantastic in a brief role, but Mortensen and Smit-McPhee shoulder the burden of the entire film. Rarely off screen, Mortensen’s performance is haunting; gaunt, caring, determined and half-broken. It is an incredible performance. Smit-McPhee is equally good with a whinier role but some heart-wrenching scenes that he pulls off convincingly. With scenes that require the father to put a gun to the head of his son in moments of desperation and despair, the pair are outstanding and believable throughout.

While the pace is slow, the film feels a hell of a lot faster than the book which is a difficult read, despite its prize-winning popularity. The cinematography is excellent, particularly with the strangely beautiful shots of decimated landscapes. The never ending grey adds to the relentlessly bleak tone. Grey skies, grey trees, grey buildings and grey sea. Life has left this planet and it shows in every frame. Moments of colour are only glimpsed in reminders of what the world used to be; the opening flashback, the solitary coke can. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score complements the tone and gets under your skin with its sad, unrelenting piano.

This film is far from the crowd pleasing post-apocalyptic scenarios of films like I am Legend. Cannibalism, starvation, rape and suicide are all very real threats to the protagonists. The film seems to be dealing with notions of morality with the father constantly teaching his son right from wrong. The boy must learn to be a good guy, not a bad guy. But the film questions the father and his moral codes, as the son does. What is bad in this new world? Is stealing wrong? Is suicide wrong? Is cannibalism wrong?

It could also be argued the film also implicitly deals with contemporary America. The idea of fear and isolation and shutting oneself off from the ‘bad guys’ is crushingly foregrounded in the closing moments of the film. The idea that so many of these apocalyptic films have been made recently is because of American fears of civilizations imminent collapse rings true. The use of the gun as the last hope a man can have of protecting his family feels very right-wing and familiar from so many other American films. But the gun is almost used on many occasions in the film to prematurely end life, not just as protector of the family. The cause of the apocalypse is never explicitly stated but the original book has been praised by environmentalists for taking the potential outcomes of the human races current actions as a serious threat.

The Road is undoubtedly a tough watch. It’s not a popcorn/multiplex kind of movie and fans of 2012 and I am Legend may possibly want to give this a miss. It is a slow, grey and depressing film. There is very little action but many moments of suspense; heartbreaking, unbearably tense in places and carried by a pair of grim but inspiring protagonists, played with conviction by a couple of bright stars.