The Road: Hillcoat, McCarthy, and Mortensen make one of the year's finest films
I stayed away from The Road for the first few weeks after its release for one simple reason: I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. The movie was released a year later than planned, which usually means a troubled production; the trailer for the film advertised it as an action thriller, an insult to the Cormac McCarthy book it was based on; and the early reviews were very mixed, many of them claiming that the film was too faithful to the book, resulting in a bleak and plodding exercise. This was all even more disappointing since everything about the project seemed to promise great things: the film had the perfect star in Viggo Mortensen and the perfect director in John Hillcoat, the visionary behind the masterfully unsung Aussie western, The Proposition. If ever there was a director born to a project, it was Hillcoat to direct McCarthy.
As it turns out, The Road was delayed because the director and the studio behind it, Dimension, wanted to get it right. And they did. The Road is a powerful experience. It is gripping and emotional and filled with beautiful moments. In adhering to McCarthy’s text, the book’s central theme, hard to discern sometimes amid the author’s idiosyncratic voice and barren landscapes, is brought vividly to the foreground of the story. The movie is not only about a father’s love for his son, but about the fire of humanity that smolders even in the darkest of times. Even at the grim hour of our impending demise, The Road tells us, there is an instinct for survival and compassion that refuses to be extinguished. It is a surprisingly hopeful and extremely moving message that arrives at the end of a film whose world is bathed in gray ash, profound depression, cannibalism and a primitive, elemental Darwinism.
The Road was filmed in real locations in the U.S. The upper reaches of Mt. St. Helens, abandoned roadways in Pennsylvania, deserted streets in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. There is a minimum of computer graphic effects and a maximum use of the tools of artful cinema. A layered sound design suggests ominous destruction occurring just outside the frame. Blazing fires explode the surrounding forests. Earthquakes erupt without warning. Abandoned houses and cars dot the landscape, as do burned human skeletons, skulls on stakes, and roving bands of cannibals.
The Road is not for the squeamish. Our capacity for horror is as pervasively on display here as is our need for love. But the film’s ultimate message of hope would not have resonated so powerfully without its equally potent depiction of ugliness and despair. We never learn the source of the apocalypse, whether it be nuclear war or environmental catastrophe, but we get a subtle and enduring sense of loss, not only in the flashbacks to the father’s wife but also in the ephemera of small details: a last can of Coke, a dusty piano, a beetle taking flight from a tin of Copenhagen.
Viggo Mortensen plays the father and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee his son. Their bond is unbreakable, but it is the son who realizes his father is losing his ability to judge good from evil. Children, desperately trying to hold onto their innocence, represent salvation. For the father, his son is God incarnate, the only reason to live. Mortensen invests his role with a devastating integrity. He is so wracked with pain, physically and mentally, and so frightened for his child, that at times the actor seemed to be breaking apart on screen. It is a great performance.
The Road is a special kind of film, unwavering in its realism, unforgiving in its vision, and against all odds, more remarkably uplifting than any pre-fabricated feel good movie you’re likely to see. You won’t feel good after seeing The Road, but you will absolutely feel alive.