Director John Hillcoat: 'It's a love story between father and son'
Image Macall Polay.
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It's a film about ruined earth and ruined men. It splits our notions of happiness and safety as easy as old wood. The Road is humanity at its worst.
But, it's also humanity at its best. About a father's love for his son and the idea that, even at the edge of the crumbling End, we can trust one another.
The post-apocalypse certainly is not a place people imagine to feel warm and fuzzy. And yet, that's one of Director John Hillcoat's takes on his new film, which screened for the first time in North America at the Telluride Film Festival over the weekend.
Hillcoat made the movie for his son, who is 8. "I dedicated it to my boy," he said. "Like any father, I worry about his future."
There is plenty to worry about in his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning novel. In gray and black hues, the color as sparse as food in the ruined world, we watch humanity fray.
It's a wasteland that could easily come to be; the world is sickened from the human race but why we're never sure why -- fallout? -- and physical hope, reasons to believe in survival, only come in painful slivers.
"The more extreme the circumstances the more of what we're really made of comes to the surface," Hillcoat said on Monday. "It's amazing how quickly that moral compass of ours, under extreme pressure, can shift."
The movie stars Viggo Mortensen as a nameless father, "the man," shepherding his young son, "the boy," in a post-apocalyptic world where everything, even the hearts of living men, is abandoned.
Men wander the roads to kill, eat and rape whatever's left alive.
The man and the boy traverse the dead country in hopes of finding the coast. There, they think, things could be better.
They aren't. There is no sun and no hope. Mortensen apologizes that the sea isn't blue.
It's a work in restraint as much as it is in quiet force; Hillcoat's landscapes are bleak and his depictions of the worst of the end of the world -- cannibalism, for one -- are somewhat subdued whereas McCarthy's depictions come like cold sweat. Hillcoat, for instance, skips a baby that's been eaten, its remains left on a spit.
But its ashen tones are offset, at least sometimes, by the tender relationship between the man and his son.
Mortensen gazes upon the boy with hopeless love and savage protection throughout the film; the boy, meanwhile, is his moral compass, his pleas for mercy for others chiming through the colorless earth.
The lessons, then, sometimes come from the ground up. "The boy is really the hope and miraculously makes that leap of faith that sometimes we all have to make," Hillcoat said. The man, sometimes, learns more from his boy than the boy from the man. "I think what's refreshing is that it's a love story between a father and a son," Hillcoat said. The relationship between man and boy is absent of tyranny and power, common themes coursing through tales of fathers and sons.
The boy, his vibrant belief, may paint him as Christ-like with some, as he stands in the road and begs his father to forgive a man who robbed them. The movie, though, is ripe on myriad levels, from biblical to psychological to metaphorical. It can be looked at 100 different ways.
"It's this parable that's got this fundamental truth to it," Hillcoat said. "And I wanted to allow that to be like the book, where you can interpret it. ... Fundamentally, it's incredibly simple. It was there on page. The dialogue, the events that test these characters, can work in that way."
People, McCarthy fans, in particular, have their notions of what the film should be. It strays slightly, letting a bit of light in where McCarthy shut the lights off.
"And the weight of [the book] was just stifling," Hillcoat said. "I just focused on putting my head down and getting it as close as I could."
Shot in forgotten and bleak corners of Pennsylvania deserted by mining and in Hurricane Katrina-ravaged strip malls, the movie makes a new disaster of the ones we've already had.
The Road is an indictment of our easy happiness and our fears. The young boy divines pure joy from a sip of Coke, and has the strength to trust. In the end of the film, he joins a family only on the hope they're good -- that they "carry the fire," as he and his father put it.
Hillcoat said he shot only one ending for the film, which could have ended a bit less hopeful.
"The older we get the more we suffer from fear," Hillcoat said. "And the boy didn't shut out those opportunities. He took that gamble and landed with another family.
"I do think it ultimately is very hopeful, in that sense."