Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Despite its title, The Road is the antithesis of any conventional road movie you've ever seen. Australian audiences have had to wait a long time to see this much-applauded film, which has garnered a long list of award nominations and may yet snare Oscars for its cast and makers.
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A Man and a Boy, his young son, trudge across a derelict, sunless, post-industrial wasteland, recognisable as a devastated North America. The man pushes a shopping trolley packed with supplies and shabby bedding. Both are dressed in filthy, worn-out layers of clothing and wear the haunted, weary faces of the long-term homeless. This is the central image of The Road: a tiny family's struggle for survival in a world slowly dying in the wake of apocalypse.
The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. What director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) and screenwriter Joe Penhall have achieved is an almost perfect realisation of this haunting, elemental, superbly written story. Much of their success is owed to the rigorous evocation of this future world.
It's a world totally devoid of animal and most plant life. It's freezing cold because of what is possibly a nuclear winter. Gangs of cannibals like born-again Hells Angels drive the highways in huge trucks, touting machine guns. Father and son travel through this horror towards the southern coast, their journey punctuated by desperate searches for supplies in a series of abandoned, derelict buildings.
Basic resources become infinitely precious, like a cigarette lighter for making fire. Death in the form of blackened corpses is everywhere. The feminine principle has gone, evidenced in the absence of the Man's wife and the fact that there are few women in the film.
This grim scenario is leavened by two sets of flashbacks: brief, light-drenched scenes of joyful times shared by the Man and his young wife before the catastrophe; and longer flashbacks of the time-limited, straitened existence the family led in hiding while the apocalypse raged outside their door.
The dull struggle endured by the Man and Boy in the film's present is punctuated by adrenalin-pumping episodes when they encounter what the Man calls the 'bad guys'; a split-second decision can mean the difference between life and death. These crises provide much of the film's drama, but they cannot shift the overall sombre mood.
Occasionally, though, there is dark humour – like the time the Man miraculously finds a faded can of Coke and hands it over to the Boy for a treat, eagerly awaiting his response. Or the joy with which he yells the word 'shampoo' as he vigorously washes the Boy's hair for the first time in months, perhaps years.
The Man sees his job as two-fold: he's there to safeguard his son and keep them both going with food and fuel; and he must instil in him the values and skills that will keep the son safe after he himself has died (he calls himself and the Boy the 'good guys'). At the same time he's convinced that his son is some kind of messiah figure, that he himself is in fact carrying God. Is he deeply deluded, or are we to take on board this semi-reverence?
These circumstances make for a form of extreme parenting; it's no wonder the film has been called a love story. The intense, symbiotic bond between father and son is the film's emotional core. It's been forced on them by the never-ending danger of the surrounds: in a world where it's impossible to trust anybody, no other roles are available. It represents life and love stripped down to their very barest essentials.
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The supreme strength of The Road is that it looks and feels nothing like a typical disaster movie. Director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe (The Others) has made no attempt to sex up the landscape, to give us cheap CGI-based visual thrills. The dreary, grey-green, sunless terrain with its eerie lack of birdsong, its mix of fire-wracked mountains, swampy woods with leafless black-trunked trees and crumbling rubbish-strewn buildings, dwarfs the characters.
This world is alien and confronting yet feels all too real, and it's no surprise to learn that the film was shot in abandoned mine sites and industrial wastelands, many in Pennsylvania. The eye, used to a blaze of colour on the cinema screen, must adjust to this constant dreariness.
The same attention to detail and realism has gone into the costumes and general look of all the characters – their clothes and belongings have been intricately adapted to make them look like the desperate scavengers they are. And McCarthy and the filmmakers have cleverly avoided direct mention of the cause of the cataclysmic collapse, ensuring the film is never reduced to being a stern environmental lesson.
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However, The Road's underlying assumptions may yet seem heavy-handed to some. True to the book, the film allegorises the Old and New Testament; the Man focuses on survival each microsecond, and occasionally indulges in an eye-for-an-eye version of morality, while the Boy practises a 'do as you would be done by' approach. This demarcation shouldn't be taken too literally; the son teaches the father a measure of generosity. Survival and self-defence are not enough to form human civilisation; they must be tempered with human compassion.
The strength of the book and the film is that they both succeed as much because of this mythic dimension as despite it; indeed, this dimension partly explains the book's original broad appeal. The only time it irritates in the film is in the words of the blind old man, played by Robert Duvall, whom the duo encounter. His rather bombastic speech belongs to an outdated Hollywood tradition.
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Yet there is something jarring about a post-apocalyptic world that can only be saved by a combination of frontier survival know-how and New Testament values. Surely the dichotomies of human and non-human, us and them, savage and civilised, helped to get us into this mess in the first place? Many will say that a reliance on the Bible has caused far more problems that it can solve.
Darwinian philosophers might warn us that, as a culture, it's the West's inability to face up to the fact that we are the 'bad guys' that's the problem. At no time does the film stray into such disturbing territory – audience members are with the civilised and the victims of the brutalised all the way.
Having said that, the film isn't totally human-centric. The blighted earth, still dying, is almost another character in the film. Pillaged, desecrated and traumatised, it no longer nurtures but poses mortal danger. The film dares to ask the questions: How can anyone expect to stay alive in a world that is itself in its death throes? And why would they want to?
As usual, Viggo Mortensen, who plays the Man, becomes a pure vessel for his character. Mortensen's much more than the thinking woman's crumpet – he's a consummate artist devoted to his craft and an intellectual sophisticate who just happens to have Hollywood good looks. Usually it's a rare treat to see this man naked but here he's sick, bowed down, silver eyes burning in a grim, wasted, deeply grooved face.
Kodi Smit-McPhee's performance is at times just a bit too minimalist, as if he's trying too hard to avoid being the over-emotional child star. But there's an underlying strength here, and a willingness to harbour feeling rather than display it overtly – often, too, his character is simply in a stupor of fear. Charlize Theron is a solid actress but she's not quite right here – especially in the flashbacks with her young son, she looks too smooth-cheeked and glamorous. Guy Pearce is unrecognisable in a cameo role.
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis created the soundtrack, so you might reasonably expect some 'sturm und drang'. But it's very unobtrusive, although occasionally some surprisingly conventional notes creep in during the most tender scenes.
Some critics have attacked the ending of The Road with as much vigour as they have lauded the bulk of it. I thought the ending was reasonably true to the novel, but there's a particular element that appears in one of the film's final shots that seemed ludicrous, even laughable; I snorted when I saw it. Yet it was almost light relief after a film whose grim resonances will haunt me for weeks to come.