FILM REVIEW: The Road (2010)

The Road (USA, 2010)
Directed by John Hillcoat
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall

Western culture is fascinated by the end of the world. Whether it's a nuclear disaster, an alien invasion, a crippling virus or a Biblical flood, there has been a steady stream of artistic output surrounding the apocalypse since each medium began. Everyone remembers The War of the Worlds or Dr. Strangelove, but filmmakers have been exploring this since the invention of sound: the appropriately titled End of the World came out in 1931.

After the critical acclaim accorded to No Country for Old Men, it seemed natural that other adaptations of Cormac McCarthy would follow. And on the grand scale of post-apocalypse films, The Road is far superior to either the recent work of Roland Emmerich or Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead. It isn't a classic, nor is it without rather telling weaknesses, but it is a credible and compelling tale about family and morality, and a solid follow-up to John Hillcoat's first film, The Proposition.Most post-apocalypse films are, let's face it, quite fun. On a very basic level, the likes of Independence Day and Deep Impact do have a harmless stupidity to them: even if the story makes no sense and the characters are two-dimensional, we can be entertained by the effects and one-liners and then move on without any kind of guilt. Even the more serious works, like The War of the Worlds and the Mad Max trilogy (more on them later), have a lightness of touch so we can soak up the substance without fear of being lectured.

What distinguishes The Road is its sustained downbeat, melancholic tone. This is not a film for those who love one-liners, or appreciate a silver lining on the ever-darkening clouds. There are little triumphs for the characters throughout, such as finding the bomb shelter full of food, but these are set against the backdrop of a world which is growing colder by the day, will little about either the landscape or its remaining inhabitants which could possibly instil a sense of hope.

In terms of its lineage, The Road owes precious little to the likes of The Omega Man or the zombie movies of George A. Romero which have shaped this genre. It has none of the extreme claustrophobia of, say, Day of the Dead and precious little that could be described as camp. The closest reference point is probably Terence Malick's Badlands, since the landscape is as much a character as the humans wandering through it. Hillcoat shoots many scenes with the actors as tiny dots on an expanse of silver and grey, and the colours are so tearful they could have been directed by Ingmar Bergman.A more illuminating comparison, however, is with the Mad Max series. On paper, they are very different: The Road is a quiet, downbeat drama or thriller, while Mad Max and its sequels are supercharged punk westerns with plenty of noise. And The Road does have some advantages over George Miller's work, particularly when it comes to the role of children. Where Mad Max 3 couldn't blend all its ideas together and ended up just ripping off Peter Pan, The Road is very clear as to what Kodi Smit-McPhee represents. As the film wears on it becomes clearer that his childlike nature, whether you call it innocence, naivety or anything else, could be the key to his survival. Certainly the cynical paranoia his father adopts doesn't always work to his advantage.

But somehow, despite its lighter tone and cheeky sensibility, the Mad Max films seem to have more to say than The Road about how life would exist after total disaster. What's interesting is the relationship between cause and effect in both films, and how the differing emphasis between the two makes all the difference. In Mad Max 2, the cause of the apocalypse is made very clear at the start: we know that humanity has descended into chaos through a global war, which caused a fuel crisis and thereby mob rule. Having clearly identified the cause, the effects seem like a natural progression from this singular idea or event, and the whole film hangs together like a well-oiled machine of social philosophy.In The Road, however, the cause of the disaster is never explored or identified; the fact that there is no mention of, say, solar flares or asteroids suggest the destruction was man-made. To some extent this is good, in that we focus on the father and son rather than any back-story, and from a thematic point of view it is one of the best environmental films ever made. But because the cause is never established, or even hinted at for very long, there is nothing we can link to the effects. That is, there is no explanation offered for the precise actions of the characters beyond the need to survive, and hence the horrors that the pair encounter seem increasingly generic.

The script does not allow for enough genuine horror at what is occurring, nor is there any real sense of escalation to give the impression that the characters' predicament is getting more than slightly worse. There is so much forewarning about the presence of cannibalism and the like that when the characters encounter it, it is never quite as harrowing as we expect it to be. Viggo Mortensen's narration is largely unnecessary (like it is in Malick's films), and despite the film making a fair deal of his character's sickness, it does feel like a jump from walking to death's door.Putting these problems aside, there is much about The Road that deserves recognition. Thematically, it is a great exploration of distrust and paranoia, and the way in which both will consume those who live by them. Mortensen believes that every character they meet has been following them and is therefore a threat, while his son seems to only want to help the people they meet. Their relationship raises the question of whether there is any point to rules or morality in a world where organised versions of both have collapsed. The death of the father, and the irony surrounding the family that find the son, suggest that morality is worth maintaining, even when it is difficult to justify.

Several brilliant moments really stick in one's mind. The death of the father is a real tear-jerker, with both Mortensen and Smit-McPhee playing things completely naturally and coming across as highly convincing. Mortensen's is the death of the old way of living, and the child does not know what the new way holds or what shape it will take. The other great moment is the section involving Robert Duvall, almost unrecognisable under heavy make-up. His performance is the best in the film, delivering lines with unmatched tenderness and sorrow.The Road is not a complete success, and as McCarthy adaptations goes it is beaten squarely by No Country for Old Men; certainly the Coens' script is a lot stronger and darker than Joe Penhall's. But for all its problems, the film is a very solid portrayal of "a world in trauma", in the words of Hillcoat. The cinematography is unyielding but beautiful, Nick Cave's soundtrack is heart-wrenching, and the central performances are very strong. It isn't an easy watch, and purists may complain that some of the tone has been lost. But it is still a worthwhile viewing experience, for those with the right amount of patience.

Rating: 3.5/5
Verdict: Equal parts rewarding and underwhelming


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