Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
It's in the final stages of post, and perhaps this experience wound up being a bit much, though I mean that in the best possible way. I expected to endure the typical preprepared five-minute studio puff-piece promo reel whilst plastering a ready-made grin on my face and exclaiming, "I think it might be really good! Looks worthwhile!" And then something else happened -- it actually does look really, legitimately good -- as in, great. The film is The Road, Australian director John Hillcoat's unlikely stab at mainstream American moviegoer acceptance following the Coen brothers' Oscar win for their adaptation of a previous work by author Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men.
The difference is such, and worth noting: The Road is probably McCarthy's darkest, grimmest work, a Pulitzer-prizewinning postapocalyptic odyssey chronicling the nightmarish trek of a father and young boy through a decimated landscape of cannibalism and human atrocities. Written while McCarthy was awaiting the delivery of his own child, The Road reflected the fears of a father bringing an infant into the unstable landscape that is contemporary America. Many thought that this vision would be softened by a Weinstein-cushioned attempt at multiplex friendliness, but the reality is far, far different.
I'm watching reels of The Road with director John Hillcoat in the post studios of Shooters located in Philadelphia (the film was shot largely in upstate Pennsylvania). So here's how the "a bit much" part comes into brutal play. Hillcoat has made two great films: Ghosts... of the Civil Dead and The Proposition. Most of us could retire by this point. Thankfully, he didn't. As is often the case with tellers of unpleasant tales, Hillcoat is friendly and charming. And then I see the footage. Hillcoat is still a great guy -- I just happen to be a little shaken.
Amputees and the physically disabled writhing in a cellar. A father (Viggo Mortensen, who is extraordinary) teaching his son how to use a gun so they can kill themselves. A mother (Charlize Theron, equally remarkable) discusses, in flashback, why she didn't kill her own son. A clan of cannibals stalks "The Man" (Mortensen) and his little boy. If Harvey and Bob were thinking an autumnal "Oscar-friendly prestige pic," then they should think again. Shakespeare in Love, it ain't.
The Road is not an FX-based film, but rather one that subtly uses digital alterations to slightly enhance the wasted environment in which the characters trek. (I was surprised to learn from Hillcoat that even The Proposition contained CGI work.) "This is a really crude work in progress; we'll never see green [in the background] in the world that we're in -- everything's dead," Hillcoat observes of an elaborate exterior shot. "All of the digital FX will be hopefully invisible to the naked eye." Now, in mid-September, Hillcoat is racing to complete the digital effects and sound design work before the film's intended Nov. 26 release date. [sic]
Reflecting on the film's origins, Hillcoat remarks that the film was a project brought to him prior to the publication of McCarthy's novel: "After The Proposition, a lot of opportunities opened up for me here, and I went out to L.A. and New York. I was particularly interested in dark and challenging material, and [producer] Nick Weschler and I had this meeting and it went really well, but I didn't hear from him again. I carried on with other projects, but then out of the blue, he had this Cormac McCarthy book, so I immediately read it and got excited. The book was just phenomenal, and I couldn't say no to it." After Hillcoat and I spent five minutes trying to recall the name of a disturbing early work from McCarthy (it's the excellent Child of God, for the record), I ask him if McCarthy has yet to view any version of the film. "No. He came up to the shoot, and I talked to him last week. He knows film is a different medium and lets us do what we want to do. He liked The Proposition very much." I imagine that McCarthy would probably have a Faulkneresque disdain for the film industry, to which Hillcoat laughingly replies, "Oh, he does!"
The Road is an undeniably harrowing work (in both mediums), yet it's far from gratuitous in that its darkness has a mirror of emotional light: a love story between father and son, as Hillcoat describes it. "The material doesn't shy away from the worst aspects of humanity, yet what's unusual about it is that it also has a sentimental love story at the heart of it, in a world that's dark and brutal although believable," says Hillcoat. "It's tricky, but it's real and that's why we decided to shoot it on location. The book had a real immediacy about it in that this is exactly how people would behave."
After viewing more unsettling and emotionally draining raw footage, Hillcoat and I talk about the overall tone of the film. "I like creating other worlds but ones that are believable as well. And...." Further discussions about the sadly unavailable Ghosts... of the Civil Dead and Hillcoat's collaborations with writer-musician Nick Cave are cut short by the timeline: Hillcoat and team are getting ready to fly back to L.A. in a few hours. As far as his earlier statement in this paragraph is concerned: Mission accomplished. I just hope that audiences are prepared.