Directed By: John Hillcoat.
Written By: Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Starring: Viggo Mortensen (The Man), Charlize Theron (His Wife), Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Boy), Robert Duvall (The Old Man), Guy Pearce (The Veteran), Garret Dillahunt (The Gang Member), Molly Parker (The Veteran’s Wife), Michael K. Williams (The Thief).
Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road is one of the master bleakest books. It takes place in a post apocalyptic American landscape, where a man and his son make their way along the road, trying to reach the coast, where they hope things will be better. Along the way they have to fight off starvation, and marauding bands of cannibals – who eat other people, because there is so little left to eat. The Boy wants to ensure that they are still “The Good Guys”, but in this desolate world, it is difficult to tell what is good and who is evil anymore.
Because the book was such a huge bestseller, a movie adaptation was inevitable, even if the book itself was not overtly cinematic (the only one of McCarthy’s novels that is would be No Country for Old Men, which the Coens turned into a masterpiece two years ago). But when the announcement came that it would John Hillcoat directing, the choice seemed apt. After all, Hillcoat made the terrific, violent Western The Proposition a few years ago, that seemed to capture McCarthy’s violent, moral universe perfectly, even if it was an original screenplay. And I am happy to report that Hillcoat’s movie adaptation does not disappoint. He found a way to make the movie bleak, without being overly depressing, and fleshed out the characters who were very sparse (purposefully so) in the novel. The result is a movie that while it might be hard for some people to watch, is brilliant.
Viggo Mortensen plays the man who is on the road with his son. His wife (played in a series of wonderful flashbacks by Charlize Theron), had previously decided to take the easy way out and killed herself, leaving the Man and their son to fend for themselves. You can understand why Theron makes the decision she does – along the road; we do not meet any other women or children until the very end of the movie. They are weaker, and hence the first people the gangs attack – both as a source for sex and a source for food. She does not want to end up like that.
So the Man and his Son pack up their meager belongings into an old, rickety shopping cart, and set off down the road. Among their possessions is a gun with two bullets left – one for each of them if it ever comes to that. The book and the movie are essentially a series of vignettes as the two struggle to maintain their sanity, and their lives, in the course of the violent, morally empty world that is seemingly closing in on them.
Mortensen is brilliant in the lead role – it could in fact be his best performance to date. He is struggling with his inner moral compass – trying desperately to do the right thing, even though his options are dwindling. In different circumstances, he would be nicer to the people in need of help he meets along the way, but he no longer has that luxury. Everyone they meet may just be trying to befriend them in order to take advantage of them. In one horrifying sequence, they discover a locked basement, and break in to search for food. All they find are people chained to the walls missing limbs and covered in blood. They are being held captive there like animals being kept for slaughter. In a world like this, how is it possible to remain good?
Kodi Smit-McPhee is also wonderful as the son. He has a more innocent, more naïve view of the world, and tries desperately to get his father to be the good guy that he claims that they are. When they come across an old man (Robert Duvall, brilliant in a one scene performance) where he starts out playing at being senile, but reveals he knows more than just about anyone else, the son wants to help him. Later still, they will catch up to a thief (Michael K. Williams), who stole all of their stuff while they were sleeping, and while the man wants to humiliate the thief, and leave him for dead, the son convinces him otherwise. If they survive, but become as bad as the people around them, then really what is the point of surviving?
Like the novel, it is the relationship between the father and the son that lay at the heart of the movie. While the film may seem bleak – and certainly does not paint an overly rosy picture of humanity – it is not hopeless. The boy’s innocent optimism is really what keeps these two characters going from one scene to the next.
Directed by Hillcoat, The Road is one of the best made movies of the year. The sparse art direction and brilliant, dim cinematography makes for one of the most memorable, more desolate looking films I have ever seen. The score is at turns dark and foreboding, but still has moments that offer hope. These elements brilliantly play off the actors to make this one of the most memorable films of the year. Like the novel, the film maybe too bleak for some viewers, who do not feel the need to wallow in the depravity of humanity for two hours, but for those of us with a preference for dark material, than The Road is a must see, and one of the year’s best films.