'The Road': Bleak And Unforgettable
24 November 2009
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films.
It's the end of the world - and I feel haunted
Imagine that the entire world as you've known it has come to an end right before your eyes. Almost everyone has died, or gone crazy scavenging for food, even becoming cannibals in the name of survival. Your beautiful wife, who was the light of your life, left you to wander off in the night and die rather than endure another terrifying day of huddling from the elements and hiding from the human monsters that most everyone else has become.
And now all that's left is you - and the ten-year-old son whose care has become your entire purpose of your existence. You had a good life once - until just a decade before - with a dignified career, nights at the opera, and joy emanating from every pore of your beautiful spouse. But now it's all a memory, and a fading one at that. You haven't been called by your own name in so long that you and your son are only known as Man and Boy.
What then, the universe asks? Do you keep a faith in God, or curse the hopelessness around you? Do you try to maintain the fire of a good soul and pass moral values to your son, or do you let your morals and humanity eventually slip away? If your morals slip away in the middle of nowhere, does anyone notice?
Those are the questions that lie at the root of director John Hillcoat's profoundly moving adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Road. Starring Viggo Mortensen in an alternately feral and saintly performance of shattering emotional depth - his are the most haunted eyes I've ever seen sustained in a film performance - it is a film that doesn't shy from some of the most disturbing questions of human existence, yet also guides viewers gently through to a sense of grace and hope that will move, for even days afterward, those brave enough to take the journey.
The film takes place against some of the most shockingly bleak landscapes (actually Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Oregon, and Mt. St. Helens in Washington) one could ever imagine in America, with millions of rotting trees that have collapsed and cities that have been laid to utter waste. The film never explains whether the destruction was wrought by man-made actions such as nuclear warfare (which appears to be the case, due to the fact that Mortensen's voiceover says that "all the clocks stopped at 1:17 a.m." and in a flashback to that moment, he sees walls of flame reflecting off the glass of his home) or an environmental catastrophe (a theory bolstered by the fact that at least one more major tree-felling earthquake takes place in the course of the film). No blame is placed on mankind in either case for the moment of destruction; it is left a disturbing mystery, nagging at the back of viewers' minds but in a way that expands the sense of dislocation and uncertainty.
Following the course taken by many other films about desperate journeys, the Man and Boy are heading in the vaguely defined direction of the ocean. The hope is that there, where the land ends, so does the destruction - that beauty will take over, and the opportunity to float away to a better life in an unravaged corner of the world. Yet this vague sense of hope is also often overwhelmed by the sense of constant fear and isolation they have to contend with along the way, never quite knowing who to trust.
At one moment, they may be running for their lives from a roving band of cannibals that still look like normal, civilized humans. At another, they're dodging a nasty rainstorm through a shivering night. Yet moments of grace and joy come as well, as when they discover an underground nuclear shelter packed with edible food and warm beds and are able to have a semblance of their former lives for a few days - and yet even then they know it can never last for long.
There are brief, powerful cameos throughout the film, highlighted by Robert Duvall as a man whose eyes are blinded by cataracts and soul is shattered by the loss of his own son, and Charlize Theron as the wife who gradually loses all hope amid a series of flashbacks. They are among the better people that Man and Boy encounter, but the lesser-known Michael K. Williams also has a pivotal role as The Thief, a man who robs Man and Boy and then forms the ultimate ethical challenge for Man in whether to extract revenge or forgive him for his desperate act.
In the end, The Road is a modern-day parable about the need to maintain morals even when all sense of morality seems lost. It is about maintaining a fire of righteousness even when surrounded by those who have gone wrong. And it is a film that once seen, will be hard to ever forget.
Last edited: 10 June 2010 14:11:12