Road, The

road road road road

Relentlessly grim, “The Road,” John Hillcoat's screen version of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is a flawed film in both narrative and dramatic ways. The eagerly-anticipated, long-in the-work picture might disappoint avid fans of the book and those viewers expecting a gripping masterpiece on the order of the Coen brothers' “No Country for Old Men,” which deservedly won the 2007 Best Picture Oscar.


Yet, despite problems, Viggo Mortensen renders an amazing performance in a tough and demanding picture, which he carries on his robust shoulders with impressive skills and diverse range of emotions.   Rising above the limitations of the text (which reads better as a novel than as a script) and the movie, which for long stretches of time is silent, plotless, and devoid of characters, Mortensen gives a towering performance that holds the entire picture together—literally and figuratively. Thus, I hope that critics and audiences will be able to separate Mortensen’s distinguished work from the less-than-distinguished but still worthy movie in which it is contained.
To be fair, McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel is a tougher, more challenging material to adapt to the screen than “No Country for Old Men,” which was effective as a suspenseful thriller as well as a metaphorical examination of American society and its mores. “The Road” lacks those accessible generic hooks. Hence, the Weinstein Company faces a marketing challenge in putting over a $30 million art film, which is grim and depressing, and which cannot be simply sold as an adventure, thriller, or even sci-fi; it's really a hybrid of a movie.
For months, rumors in the industry have suggested that “The Road” was pushed back from its initial 2008 release due to disagreements over the final cut. The film that I saw bears evidence to tempering over the narrative (specifically the ending) in the edition room. End result may be a work that ultimately might not fully reflect either the vision of director Hillcoat, that of its indispensable star, or the distributor’s. (I am curious to hear author McCarthy’s reaction).
Overall, my response to “The Road” is mixed for the following reasons. Basically an intimate, two-handler drama, centering on a father-son relationship as they try to survive the elements, the film suffers from a weak performance by Kodi Smith McPhee as the son.  It’s hard to tell whether Smith McPhee lacks the experience to render an effective performance, or whether he was (mis) directed to deliver his lines in a straightforward but emotionally bland manner.
The second flaw resides in the narrative structure, or more specifically in the use of voice-over narration, which is often unnecessary, as it doesn’t add much, and the conventional insertion of flashbacks to the Man's life with his wife, played by the estimable Charlize Theron.  Theron's is a small, incoherent part, perhaps used in order to cash in on her name and/or to justify the fact that she was willing to appear with such a minor contribution. (I will return to these points later on).
Most of the narrative unfolds as one long, harsh, not particularly eventful journey across a barren America, a country that was destroyed by a mysterious cataclysm.  The film tries to imagine a future in which the few surviving human beings are pushed to the limits, often to the very worst, and occasionally also to the best instincts, they are capable of.  At crucial points, the Boy asks his father: “Are we the good people?” “Will we always be the good people, even if we have nothing to eat?”
When the tale begins, it is ten years since the world was destroyed, though no one can tell the exact cause, which could have been a catastrophic nuclear event, or the collision of the Earth with another cosmic entity. All we learn is that one day there was a sudden big flash of light, and then nothing, a cataclysmic event that means no energy, no power, no vegetation, and no food. The only resource available is water, but it's scarce and not always clean enough to drink. 
Hillcoat and his production designers have created a visually compelling milieu, in which millions of people have been eradicated, destroyed by fires and floods, or scorched and incinerated in their cars where they sat when the event occurred. Many suffocated by starvation and despair in civilization's slow process of dying after the power went out.
I am usually suspicious of novels/films in which the protagonists are nameless, as was the case of “Blindness,” in which they were described as “The Doctor, “The Wife." However, in “The Road, this strategy works, based on McCarthy’s description of the Man and the Boy as "each the other's world entire," and his intent to present a story that's both very particular and very universal, an allegory of chaos and destruction that could take place anytime and anywhere. 
When first seen, father and son are on the move with all of their precious possessions in a cart, with whatever little food and clothing they can scrounge, utensils and tools, plastic bags, tarps, blankets and any object to keep warm in the frigid, sunless, ash-filled outdoors. The shopping cart is fitted with a bicycle mirror so that they can see who's coming up behind them. There’s always danger that another survivor might appear out of nowhere trying to steal their food (as indeed happens).
This consistent image, sort of a motif, brings a set of associations to contemporary life in America. The desperate, improvised traveling gear and the scruffy unwashed bodies of the Man and the Boy lend them a more realistic look of the numerous homeless people that populate our cities. And, on one level, all the characters in “The Road” are homeless. It's the status of every survivor in a lifeless frontier, in which the very notions of home, security, and stability have been eradicated.
In short and broad brushes, we observe the broken, one-parent family as father and son follow the once-magnificent American highway system West, toward the ocean. Along the way, they hide in the woods or in old abandoned structures–any shelter they can improvise that keeps them safe from the elements and the ruthless, cannibalistic wandering bands. (The film's least effective sequence depicts such an encounter, reducing "The Road" to the level of a cheap zombie horror flick).
As noted, for long stretches of time, the duo occupy center-screen, making the viewing less interesting than is should have been, a problem aggravated by the deliberate pacing. The tale comes to life in the various encounters that the couple has with few other desperate people. In these sequences, The Man expresses his commitment to two sacred goals, sheer physical survival and socializing his son as to how to survive on his own, or how to be a “real man.” 
In this respect, “The Road” is a classic American coming-of age tale, in which the father’s utmost responsibility is to instruct his son with technical skills and social values, which include the use of his gun to kill him and then kill himself.  As the odyssey's most recurrent image, we get many close-ups of the gun, a single one to be sure, with only two bullets left in it.
The first encounter is with a military-clad road gang, a wild bunch of tough men who have managed to fuel their big semi. It’s the first time that the boy witnesses his father not just pointing a gun but also using it to save his life. Later on, there are scavengers and hunters, thieves, and cannibals who keep a cellar-full of barely human kitchen in a big house on a hill, where the Man and the Boy hide for a while.  
The film contains several genuinely dramatic scenes, in one of which the couple meets an Old Man named Ely (Robert Duvall), bent and shuffling down the road, walking with a makeshift cane in shoes made of rags and cardboard. The Boy takes a liking to Ely and persuades his father to share their food and camp with him. Shocked by the human gesture, Ely is impressed at his very existence as they are by his. Having been on the road forever, Ely tells them that when he saw the boy he thought he'd died and gone to heaven, like an angel. The Man confirms that the Boy is an angel, a label that gets reaffirmation toward the end of the saga.
The achievement of director Hillcoat, his crew and his cast is that even in this bleak universe, there are moments of happiness, generosity and humanity. Occasionally, the pair comes across some food long forgotten in a cupboard or stashed in a fallout shelter. While rummaging in an abandoned mall, the Man finds a forgotten can of Coke stuck in the bowels of an upturned vending machine. When he gives the treat to his son, the father is amused by his son's astonishment of the drink's fizzy sweetness. Later, when they come across a waterfall with clean water, both jump right in for skinny-dipping.
What doesn’t work in the picture is the flashback strategy, including the order in which they are inserted and the conventional way in which they are terminated. Since the flashbacks are shot in bright, sunny colors, it’s quite clear when they begin and end; there’s no reason to show the Man waking up from a nightmare every single time he remembers his wife, or to accompany the flashbacks with voice-over narration that doesn't add much to what we have already witnessed.
In these half a dozen episodes, the Man recalls his life with his Wife before the disaster, before she took her own life. We see them making love, attending the opera, during which he flirtatiously places his hand under her dress. But we also get the bleak sequences, with the Wife regretting having a gun with two bullets (not enough for the whole family). Indeed, later on, determined to take on her life, she simply walks out into the dark, cold and desolate desert; she fears that otherwise she might be raped and killed by others. The Man tries–in vain–to persuade her to go on struggling in the meager hope of survival, in the slim chance that at least their son will survive and thus continue the existence of the human race. It’s in these disputes, dealing with the sacredness of life, that “The Road” reaches its most existential moments. 
In the last reel, reaching the Ocean, the Man makes preparation for his death, making sure that his son will continue the road on his own.  There's an excellent scene, in which the duo encounter a family–a whole family for a change–headed by Guy Pearce (barely recognizable), his wife, two children and a dog.  After depicting a grim and depression journey, "The Road" concludes on a much-needed humanist and uplifting note, which cannot be disclosed here.
As noted, though rooted in a particular locale, "The Road" is ultimately an allegory about life and death, survival and extinction.  For each and every parent, the movie may signal a journey into the indomitable human spirit, a survivor's story in which, no matter what happens, the hero carries the fire-the life force that keeps hope alive.
The Man – Viggo Mortensen
The Boy – Kodi Smit-McPhee
Wife – Charlize Theron
Old Man – Robert Duvall
The Veteran – Guy Pearce
Veteran's Wife – Molly Parker
The Thief – Michael K. Williams
The Gang Member – Garret Dillahunt
A Dimension Films release presented with 2929 Production. of a Nick Wechsler and Chockstone Pictures production.
Produced by Wechsler, Paula Mae Schwartz, Steve Schwartz.
Executive producers, Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban, Marc Butan, Rudd Simmons.
Directed by John Hillcoat.
Screenplay, Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.
Camera, Javier Aguirresarobe.
Editor, Jon Gregory.
Music, Nick Cave, Warren Ellis.
Production designer, Chris Kennedy.
Art director, Gershon Ginsburg.
Set decorator, Robert Greenfield.
Costume designer, Margot Wilson.
Sound, Edward Tise; sound designer, Leslie Shatz; supervising sound editor, Robert Jackson; re-recording mixers, Todd Beckett, Chris David.
Assistant director, John Nelson.
Additional editor, Craig Wood.
Casting, Francine Maisler.  
MPAA Rating: R.
Running Time: 111 Minutes










New Trailer: