Image Javier Aquirresarobe.
© Dimension Films/2929 Productions.
"As they say," Viggo Mortensen said as he smiled over a completely packed Mann's Chinese, "fear is the great teacher." His voice was gravelly, trembling tentatively just above a whisper, so seemingly-fragile that the feedback whistling through the system periodically exposed the nightmare the soundman was having trying to keep his levels up. He sat on the edge of a stately looking black leather chair next to the interviewer, illuminated by a host of spotlights. Yet with the way he gingerly handled each question, you'd swear you were sitting with him alone in the back of a diner, murmuring in soft tones over steaming coffee and a slice of half-eaten black forest cake. Indeed, this night wasn't quite as intimate as the atmosphere might have implied. It was, in fact, AFI's tribute to Viggo Mortensen and the US premiere of The Road, his latest and perhaps most compelling performance to date.
A thick silence hung over the theater as the audience chewed on Viggo's comment. Mann's Chinese is a disarmingly enormous space and it was easy to get overwhelmed in the larger-than-life mystique of a storied establishment that has housed countless premieres, junkets, and Academy Award ceremonies. Viggo's weighty rhetoric wasn't helping. I glanced to my right. One row over, the beautiful Charlize Theron watched attentively, drawing adoring fans and stalkers out with their sweaty little digicams dealing flashes that lit up the dark at random moments. The woman next to me intermittently peeked at her Blackberry for updates on Game Six of the World Series. Yankees up 8-1. I smiled. This was going to be a good night.
This evening marked the sixth night of the AFI Fest, a fitting consummation of the American Film Institute's commitment to preserve the history of the motion picture, educate the next generation of storytellers, and honor the artists and their work. Straight from the brochure, yes. But when an organization like the AFI gets together with companies like Audi to provide LA's first ever completely free film festival, who can argue their intentions?
"So what was the point where you felt like you finally made it?" It'd been nearly a quarter-century since Viggo's first significant screen debut in Peter Weir's Witness, and even with a resume most would envy it looked like his best work was still ahead of him. "I'm not sure I've ever felt like I've made it." His voice crumbled like the crust of pastry left out too long. Not the husky, Elvish-whispering voice that had every Lord of The Rings crush gasping for breath-more like the subdued, unassuming History of Violence drawl of a simple man. He was, after all - behind the poetry, music, horsemanship, multilingual abilities - a simple man. "When do you reach that point? Does it really exist? Maybe it's when you can sit back not worry about getting more work. Or maybe it's when you get to enjoy something like this." His hand swept over the beaming faces before him. The crowd tittered. "If I've learned anything these past years it's that everyone is in some way your superior. Every movie I've made has confirmed the fact that this is a team sport."
Not the kind of response you'd expect from someone who'd brought to life one of the most iconic characters in cinema. The highlight reel they screened moments before he stepped on stage revealed the diversity of characters he'd portrayed, but cheers erupted when the montage cut to that unmistakeable five o'clock shadow and perpetually wet hair throwing open the meeting-hall doors of Rohan. Somewhere in back I could make out the hysterical "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!" of an excited female spectator. You wouldn't know he was already 42 when Aragorn first graced the silverscreen - or that three weeks ago he was celebrating his 51st.
"You know," he leaned forward, "I've been told I've arrived so many times I don't know where I went." The audience laughed again. "A lot of times I take on roles because they scare me." That, he explained, was what brought him to The Road. Viggo had read the book and was afraid. Afraid of a role he thought might be the most physically and emotionally demanding performance of his career. Think Christian Bale's Machinist thrown onto the set of Children of Men. Except, in this world, nearly everything is dead or dying and the people inhabiting it have either committed suicide or been pushed into cannibalism. "What happens when everything is taken away and you're desperate? That's when your true character comes out." Viggo's eyes hardened. "Everyone in this movie makes a choice."
The Road chronicles the journey of a father and son trying desperately to travel south through this environment. "It's a love story," declared director John Hillcoat, a close-up of their relationship, their struggles, and how they must cope with bitter realities of a post-apocalyptic world. What sets this film apart from others of its genre is the way it strips away the fantasy and lore surrounding the end of world, exposing its raw humanity. In all honesty The Road is hard to watch; its gritty depictions hit unnervingly close to home. That night the images flashed across the screen of Grauman's Chinese in frightening realism. It wasn't until halfway through the movie I finally understood what was so innately disturbing about The Road. This could be tomorrow, I realized. If the end of the world came it would probably feel like this. The film terrifies in ways that evoke intimate fears we recognize but don't understand. I could only shudder for a moment and continue watching. How close is Hillcoat's portrayal to the original acclaimed novel by Cormac McCarthy, author of No Country for Old Men? Take it from Viggo: "No disrespect to Peter Jackson and what he's done - it's different, really - but I've never been part of a movie that has been more true to the book it was based on than The Road." According to Hillcoat, McCarthy is quite pleased with the adaptation.
And he should be. The movie is simply incredible. Perhaps too incredible. Which brings us to the all-important question: is this a film you want to watch? Yes, if you enjoy heavy, meticulous treatments painting life in all its ugliness and paradoxical beauty. No, if you can't stomach an emotionally draining movie that forces you to feel and think. Some people escape to the movies for just the opposite and that's OK. What I can guarantee is that The Road will cause you to reexamine what you value in life. Perhaps Viggo's parting words as the lights dimmed would be fitting advice:
"You may not be very comfortable once in awhile - but it's worth the trip."