'The Road' - Bleak But Beautiful
25 November 2009
San Francisco Chronicle
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films.
The Road is the latest in a year filled with Armageddon movies such as Terminator Salvation and 2012, and it won't be the last, but it's the most chilling so far. Not coincidentally, it's the only one based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy.
Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall deserve some kudos for this torturously faithful adaptation - which, like the novel, looks at paternal devotion amid ashen skies and unspeakable horrors. Like the novel, it's simultaneously bleak and beautiful, a tear-jerking dystopian fable that holds a gun to the head of a child and calls it love. But the movie's bleaker. The book's more beautiful.
Don't heap too much blame on Hillcoat (The Proposition) or Javier Aguirresarobe, whose washed-out cinematography paints the post-apocalypse landscape in depressive shades of gray. That's the world McCarthy described in The Road. But actually seeing it - actually watching a knot of naked, bloody captives, alive but hacked apart by redneck cannibals - is a lot harder than reading about it, no matter how graphic the language or how discreetly it's captured on film.
Cannibals are a not-uncommon feature in this grim near-future, where a world-ending calamity (only alluded to in flashbacks) has killed off almost everything that breathes. The bulk of the story follows an unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) and an unnamed boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who slog vaguely south along scorched fields and byways. Every now and then, a stranger comes along, perhaps threatening to eat the boy, perhaps not. Every now and then, the man and the boy find something to eat. Every now and then, the man instructs his son in how to kill himself.
Yet this difficult, visually drab and frequently hideous story is limned with tenderness - crosshatched, like fine gold thread, into the film's darkest fabric. It involves not just the love of the man for the boy but his conviction, against all odds, that the boy carries a spark of hope into the future.
An old hand at heroes (The Lord of the Rings) and enigmas (Eastern Promises), Mortensen delivers a performance of pure, agonized transparency. He and Smit-McPhee aren't alone onscreen (look for Robert Duvall as an old man with cataracts, Guy Pearce as a latecomer and Charlize Theron as Mortensen's absent wife), but the intensity of their bond commands the movie. Its quiet inviolability burns like "the fire" the man claims they carry.
That's the best you could ask, I guess, of a film based on McCarthy's gorgeous, ghastly masterpiece.
Last edited: 8 June 2010 14:26:49