Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Road (2009)

* * * *

(2009, Dir. John Hillcoat)

Based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel of the same name, some unexplained natural disaster (we later see trees being uprooted in an earthquake) has changed the face of a now barren America. A nameless father (Viggo Mortensen) and a nameless son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are crossing the continent dressed in, and eating, anything left behind by the dead, in hope of reaching the coast. Survivors (Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce) are few and far between and can never be trusted by the protective father. These include cannibalistic militants whose actions help the father to teach his son the difference between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. We soon learn through the father’s flashbacks that the mother of the family (Charlize Theron) has killed herself in wake of the unimaginable suffering that awaits her in the form of rapists and cannibalists.

In his Guardian review Peter Bradshaw has criticised Hillcoat and Joe Penhall (screenplay) for choosing not to revivify the graphic cannibalism prevalent in the McCarthy novel. However one of the film’s great strengths, what makes it so believable, is its consistency: it never covets brutality. Rather it is the impossibility of destiny and the brooding of suicide that give
The Road its shock factor, and - if you want to find them - there are allusions to cannibalism, environmentalism, socialism and so on, but the film forces no agenda. On leaving the cinema I experienced that rare sensation, that I was a part of the director’s landscape and spell (no doubt, in part, because of another January blizzard), that I had become a vulnerable extra. I had never felt more thankful to have clothes and shoes to wear, or to be walking down my own ‘road’ when I arrived home, such is the power of this movie.

There are two important reasons why this works as a post-apocalyptic film. Another auteur might have opted to bloat this story with spectacular CGI, but Hillcoat’s barren and wintry cinematography is so organic and ironically permanent that it has revitalised end-of-the-world cinema, an often burdensome genre when considering the Blockbuster-likes of the Matrix sequels or more recently, 2012. Secondly, the observational directing, substantiated by the outstandingly talented Kodi Smit-McPhee and seasoned superstar, Viggo Mortensen (
A History of Violence, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Eastern Promises), makes for some unforgettable set pieces. One, in particular, shows the father throwing a photograph of his wife off a bridge before pushing his wedding ring slowly to the edge, but he can not manage to obliterate her completely, as evinced by various, emotionally intelligent flashbacks of their intimacy. Another inspired scene comes in the form of Coca Cola. They discover a can in a vending machine, and the boy, having never drunk coke, let alone from a can, having never seen the world as we know it, darts his tongue out before learning how to drink from this unfamiliar piece of metal. “It’s bubbly”, he smiles, endearingly.

The Road does have a flaw, it is surely closure. The film struggles to synchronise its set pieces of impressive social realism and considerable emotional depth with a directionless storyline: the planned destination, the coast, is hardly an Ithaka for the father and son. In the context of total devastation, anything that surprises us is kindled by the unyielding tension between suicide and the human will, and after two hours in this hell-on-earth, any plot vicissitudes seem insignificant, any deaths (I will not completely ruin the ending) more cathartic than tragic.

The Road is reminiscent in style of three recent, similarly slow-moving, chilling and instantly classic epics, all from 2007: the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Andrew Dominick’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Indeed Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, who wrote the score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, team up successfully once more in The Road. Yet again their music has failed to disappoint, contributing validly to the pathos of this profound and serious Oscar-contender.

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