Film-Related 2009

The Road Is The Most Important Movie Of The Year

Source: Esquire

That's the burden carried by an Aussie's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's beloved novel. Almost no one has seen it. Well, we did. This is interesting... do you have a second?

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At one point in The Road, a moment that is never otherwise explained or referenced, the father and the son stare at a dead forest as it burns. The fire leers profanely from one edge of the screen to the other. Dense and hot, certainly loud, it's the sort of fire from which there is no safe distance. It feels like the two of them should get out of there. From the get-go, the father and son have moved. And yet now they stand there watching the fire, dazed, like two drunks gazing out
the window of a Laundromat at a mushroom cloud.

Move, guys. Move.

Everything about the film seems disconnected in this way -- shocky and post-traumatic. This is what happens: A father and a son walk from point A to point B through a desolate landscape. Cities are deserted. People-zombies, some of them hungry for human flesh, stare out from abandoned office buildings and sometimes hunt other people. It's always cloudy. Everything is dead. There is no color left in anything -- not the people, not the plants, not the faces of mountains. Ruined, wrecked, used up -- it is our world, consumed at its edges by fire, at its center by rot.

Sounds awful, because it goddamned well is. But it's awful, too, as in full of awe. Awful as in you cannot avert your gaze. It's hard not to watch a fire.

When they do move, the father and the son progress through a quietly seething dream, a world at its end. When they run from danger, they clank and rustle and seem wetly destined to never get away. When the father grips the boy's mouth to quiet him, it is too rough. Rivers seem to be icy sloughs of poison. Yet they swim. They are a father and son. They carry two bullets. Anytime the man turns his back on the boy or separates from him, it feels -- in a way that scary, apocalyptic movies often do -- as if everything will end. But in those movies, the end never really comes. You know that going in, because generally those movies just flirt with the apocalypse, just offer a little look-see at a tidal wave or a nuclear blast.

The Road is no tease. It is a brilliantly directed adaptation of a beloved novel, a delicate and anachronistically loving look at the immodest and brutish end of us all. You want them to get there, you want them to get there, you want them to get there -- and yet you do not want it, any of it, to end.

You should see it for the simplest of reasons: Because it is a good story. Not because it may be important. Not because it is unforgettable, unyielding. Not because it horrifies. Not because the score is creepily spiritual. Not because it is littered with small lines of dialogue you will remember later. Not because it contains warnings against our own demise. All of that is so. Don't see it just because you loved the book. The movie stands alone. Go see it because it's two small people set against the ugly backdrop of the world undone. A story without guarantees. In every moment -- even the last one -- you'll want to know what happens next, even if you can hardly stand to look. Because The Road is a story about the persistence of love between a father and a son, and in that way it's more like a remake of The Godfather than some echo of I Am Legend.

Only this one is different: You won't want to see this one twice.

Consider this little tick of time in the life of The Road, a movie that hundreds of thousands of the book's readers, millions even, are waiting for, if only to vet the film's bleak topography of the ruined nation against the skull carpet of their own imagination: It's the moment when the producer chooses a trailer, itself a defining document for the potential moviegoing nation. This takes place in the offices of the distributor, Dimension Films, and features the huffing presence of one Bob Weinstein, wearing the most wrinkled shirt in the history of modern office life, sitting in his infamous miasma of consternation and excitement, speaking about The Road, which had its release date pushed back one full year last November. Everyone involved -- director, producer, screenwriter -- says there was no secret agenda to that, no worry to be inferred, no doubt on anyone's part about the final product. The movie, which required more than two hundred visual effects to decolorize a landscape stripped of life, simply wasn't ready.

Weinstein acknowledges that loyal readers of Cormac McCarthy's book, which was published in 2006, are probably worried. He's sitting in a conference room in Manhattan, about to pop in a DVD containing two potential trailers. He seems to be figuring out how to talk about the film as he goes, fighting contrary tugs from some internal narrator, giving in only by the slenderest of degrees to the urge to mollify two, three, four different audiences.

First, he calls it a literate action movie. At one point he calls it a zombie movie. Then he starts talking about his kids. "When I had my kids, I was grateful. I was like, Now there's something other to think about than me," he says, and that word -- me -- echoes in the star chamber. "Every parent has that. You don't have to have kids. You're human. If you can't relate to this story, then check your humanity somewhere. I felt this whole relationship with this father and son. Yeah. And yet it was thrilling."

People like to see certain components in movies concerning the end of the world. Asteroids. Alien visitation. Angels. Nuclear war. Tidal waves. Climate change. Giant robots. They seem to like leather. And hopped-up cars. Appearances by God. Buildings blow up, cities fall, in real time. Villains, always villains. Snakes are always good. A beautiful woman. But The Road offers none of that. (Except the last one: Charlize Theron has a supporting role as the mother, breathing a little more fully than her character does in the book, solely as the face of despair.)

Plus, let's face it: The Road does not inherently seem like an asses-in-the-seats proposition. It is adapted from a lyric, repetitive little book, one written in a fashion that nods at classic narrative structure only in its final pages. A book that has found two sorts of readers: the fanatics, who can't put it down, and the frustrated, who find it so dark, blatantly literary, rhythmically voicey, and without hope that they can't turn past page 3. While that doesn't necessarily frame it as a problem movie, it does make things hard to describe in the familiar contours of an X-meets-Y movie pitch. It's fair to wonder whether The Road will become an unimportant footnote in the wake of a best seller. Happens all the time. The Bonfire of the Vanities. Angela's Ashes. And movies mangle literary books, too. They turn arty and inexplicably beloved literary titles -- The English Patient or The Hours -- into arty and pretty forgettable movies. Worse, bad movies routinely make important stories less important. Three years ago, Emilio Estevez single-handedly killed any resurgent interest in the accomplishments of Bobby Kennedy.

"We had a lot of pressure when I went after this book," says producer Nick Wechsler, who pursued and optioned the novel in June 2006, before it was published. "There were other people who made offers, but they weren't large, because they were afraid of the material, obviously. It's very dark stuff. I simply responded to the book. I had no idea that it was going to gain the momentum that it did, become that talked about, that it would win the Pulitzer, get on Oprah. All of a sudden, I could see this was very precious to people, that there was a kind of public trust associated with this book. And we felt incredible pressure on delivering the movie that we felt would be a valid adaptation."

When Wechsler entered the life of The Road, the movie, chances were taken, creating a new interpretative alchemy. He selected a relatively unknown Australian director, John Hillcoat, whose previous feature-film work began and ended with The Proposition, a smallish Australian western starring Guy Pearce -- a decent third-shelf offering at Blockbuster right now. Hillcoat, in turn, hired dark-rocker Nick Cave to compose the score and sought out Joe Penhall, an award-winning but obscure Australian playwright living in London, to write the screenplay. They moved fast -- Penhall and Hillcoat were working on the script even as the book's fervent readership coalesced.

It's clear that Wechsler was toying with expectations even then. "It's a very small bull's-eye, this movie. In all aspects of putting it together, you don't want an audience going into the theater thinking they know what the ride is going to be."

Whatever topical agenda people attach to this film -- global warming, the fall of nationalism, the perils of consumption -- it won't matter. It isn't a vision of the future at all. This is a vision of the end. Like: In the end, there's only one can of Coke. Coke is about to be forgotten. In a collapsing mall, the father digs a single can out of a toppled vending machine. It falls to the floor like a weighty and singular apple. The father opens it and offers it to the boy as a treat. The boy drinks and insists that the father have some, too. They are like that: generous and genuine, even with the last details of a time the boy has never known. But the father gives almost all of it to his son, who stops for a moment, then asks, "Because it's the only one I'll ever have, right?" In that moment, he realizes not only what he has lost, but why his father wants him to have the soda at all. You can see he likes the Coke, too.

"This was a book that was written in a time of prosperity, and we got involved with it in a time of prosperity," says Marc Butan of Mark Cuban's 2929 Productions, which produced the film. "The lens that everyone is viewing through these days is very different. You look at it now and it has a different subtext. It's a count-your-blessings thing now."

Cormac McCarthy fathered a son as an old man, and this story is an ode to a ticking clock, to the diminishment of time, to last chances. Last chance to parent. Last chance to warn, to train, to prepare. The father fights to teach. And the father teaches the boy to fight. In the movie's first teaching moment, the father shows his son where to shoot himself in the head should it come to that. With the gun loaded. It is perhaps the movie's only lurid turn, a moment that, like almost every moment in the movie, appears in the book as well. By the time it occurs, it is understood to be a gesture of necessity. There they are, citizens of a kind of now, bad teeth and all, pallid, filthy, damp to the bone, at their end, and whether you've read the book or not, the sight of it makes you seize.

"It's a love story," Hillcoat says. "So it moves you in a way that is quite unexpected."

It is a love story. But to be clear, it's a love story about a father and a son hauling ass to keep from being eaten by small bands of flannel-shirted cannibals.

It's also a purposefully color-bare apologue of man and boy. The man is played by Viggo Mortensen, and he's in virtually every frame. "The interesting thing about picking an actor for a movie is, you want to try to surpass the audience's knowledge or expectations of what that actor's about," Hillcoat says. "We took a shot with Viggo as opposed to bigger box-office stars. In large part, he's the right choice because, as good as he is, he's still untapped." Mortensen is brilliant in insinuating the father's pain and communicating the hints of loss and his resistance to the inevitable. Burnt and sinewy in each scene, he registers a liquid panic in every glance at the woods and a sort of angry regret in every peek at the boy. Mortensen is a different filthy man in each function of fatherhood. You recognize them all, without voice-over, without undue exposition. He still cares. And it hurts more than ever to care.

Twelve-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee is beautiful and wretched, luminous and somehow smaller than his age as the boy. But he's full-blown in the part, his character concerned, like all boys, with the contents of his pockets, naturally curious about the few others they encounter -- an old man, an elusive child, a thief, a dog barking at the unseen end of a collapsed mall. Mortensen and Smit-McPhee wrestle for control like any father and son -- in dealing with strangers, in figuring out who's a good guy and who's a bad guy, in matters of privacy, and in the divergent ways they treat others. Elemental shit, really. Just some simple old-world parenting, long before people harvested human limbs for Sunday dinner.

The third major cast member of The Road is the setting itself, the world. The film's locations were perhaps the least well-kept secrets in the marketplace of prerelease Web sites about the movie. "Initially we were talking about [filming in] Australia or Iceland," Hillcoat says. "But all of our research took us to looking at images of events like Mount St. Helens, the volcanoes in the Philippines, Hiroshima, Katrina, a set of man-made and natural disasters that have been heavily photographed and filmed. My production designer, sitting in the countryside in Victoria, Australia, found eight miles of abandoned freeway in Pennsylvania on Google Earth, which gave us those dark tunnels. We deliberately used America's real apocalyptic zones. We went to New Orleans to shoot our interior shots in a ruined shopping mall in post-Katrina New Orleans. We used the strip mines in western Pennsylvania. Even billowing clouds in the background of one scene come from 9/11.

"When they pass through a city, there's a shot of two ships sitting on a freeway that looks like a visual effect. That is an actual IMAX 70mm shot taken days after Katrina. We had to doctor the image, grunge it up, make it more toxic, set it into our world, but these places were not hard to find. There's a fair amount of devastation already in the American landscape."

You don't recognize these presences as some timely message from our near past, as heralds of warning. Like the father and son, the scenes -- the forgotten 18-wheeler jackknifed on a freeway bridge, the gas stations littered with useless contraptions, the sinister farmhouses, the sheds with their hand tools piled like ancient contrivances -- all of it calls up the now. Grunged and toxic, sure, but sickeningly familiar. You cannot recognize enough to say where this is, but you recognize it. All of it.

When Bob Weinstein rolls those trailers, each one assumes the predictable arc of a story compressed to its essence. There is a speed to them that the actual movie -- which I saw before seeing the trailers -- does not possess or seek to possess, an urgency that feels manufactured. The music is pulse-pounding and urgent, driven to create absurd expectations of action in a movie that quietly elicits worry about the relative friability of the invisible paths that exist between people and what they need. Still, every utterance, every cry for help or hand clasped across the mouth of the boy to suppress a sob, is a fair-enough emanation from the heart of the movie.

The odd thing is, the start of each trailer includes glimpses of a storm, panicky news footage, little puzzle pieces of the world before it ended. No one -- not the director or the myriad producers, not the novelist or the screenwriter -- had ever even hinted at how it happened, until this.

For someone who loves the book, for anyone who knows the story going in, this is a moment you hoped would never come. Why remind us of the reductive logic of cause and effect? Before the question can be asked, Weinstein stands up, offers his hand, and says, "Okay, we're going with the first one." He gives no rationale. And so it seems the metonymic references to the national news, to the weather, to presumed military conflicts laid in as a tonally quiet explanation of what is never known in book or movie, for now will stay in the trailer.

On the other side of the planet, at home in Australia, Hillcoat's been hearing about these trailers. "We're so conditioned by postapocalyptic films to be centered on a big event, and they become this high-concept thing. And here there's this total absence, this negation of explanation. We have to stay with that. So yeah. That's gonna be a challenge."

In good times or in shit times, you can ask why people go to see movies at all. The Road may be a kind of historical countertwitch to Depression-era Busby Berkeley musicals, to a time when people used movie theaters as places to forget. (Although how a kaleidoscopic mess like 42nd Street ever generated hope in 1933 is baffling.) But make no mistake, hit or miss, The Road, a risky, dyspeptic, and serious road movie, will be easy to lampoon, to dismiss, to skip. Unwary couples will walk out. Teenagers in search of the comfort nipple of cinematic apocalypse, with its blank-slate promise and its tinny hope for a new tomorrow, will roll their eyes. Bill Hader is probably writing the SNL skit right now.

The other certainty is that everyone involved in this movie is working against the predictable imperatives of perhaps the most predictable movie genre of them all: the apocalyptic thriller. The great experiment of the movie is that it hangs on nothing if not the subversion of the conventions of the genre. These people want the same thing from The Road that Busby Berkeley wanted, the same thing any artist with a sense of urgency wants. They want for people to walk out of the theater feeling it in their chest plate. They want them to say, perhaps for reasons they cannot consciously fathom, to everyone they know: You have to see it. Really.

You do. Not because it's grim, not because it's depressing, or even scary. The Road is all of those things, both acutely and chronically. But there was not a single stupid choice made in turning this book into this movie. No wrongheaded lyric tribute to the novel. No moment engineered simply to make you jump.

The terror of it is in a normal world made vacant. There is a surprising terror in a landscape of farmhouses full of possessions that have no function, a remarkable danger in a pile of old hammers, in the possibility of forgetting what things were once for. It's a fear worth feeling. And there is something knotty and resilient, eternal and elemental, something worth caring about in all this, in a parent's love for a child, especially when love is the only thing left in the world that has the least little thread of purpose.

That's their world, bleak and empty as it might be. Ours, too.

The Road opens this fall.
Last edited: 25 May 2009 10:26:53
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