Movie Review: “The Road,” The Unrelenting Road
“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.” Thus quietly begins Cormac McCarthy‘s 2006 novel, “The Road.” The context is unclear. We roll the overwhelming questions in our minds. Who is the child and why does this speaker reach out for him? The reader teeters on the edge of two possible understandings – one of desperate hopes and one of darkening fears. Such is the everlasting crossroads in each sentence of this unrelenting novel and, indeed, in its 2009 film adaptation by director John Hillcoat.
We soon discover it is a father and son. The older man’s hunch is mournful, beard unkempt, eyes sunken, his face craggy with the pain of many years. Played hauntingly by Viggo Mortensen, the man walks ever southward with the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), born after and thus blameless for the unexplained cataclysm that brought us to this point. His innocence—his angelic goodness, his father resolves—must be preserved at all costs. Their shopping cart, sparsely filled by a few cans of food, rattles down concrete amid a backdrop of infinite ash. The world is petering out.
Yet Hillcoat constantly retraces to the beginning – to another world of hushed, happy sunlight. There was a family once: husband, wife and a child curled in warm prenatal dreams. The man often remembers his wife (Charlize Theron) playing the piano. But then he remembers the fires also, flickering across the walls, and her final decision to commit suicide.
The film always flitters between present and past – a past that also seems to be frighteningly past for viewers. In this age of natural disaster and ceaseless war, what scares most is how much we occupy not those sunrayed memories, but the gap in between.
“The Road,” undoubtedly, is grim. It is not so much a genre film about post-apocalypse, though roving cannibals, skulls impaled on sharpened sticks and gun-toting robbers certainly do roam the dying world. Instead, it is a story of day-to-day survival for a father and his son. There are the questions of food and water. One night they get by on only fire-roasted insects. It is raining and shelter may only constitute a blanket thrown over branches.
Then there are greater questions, of emotional need and of moral certitude. How can we cope with the unbearable loss of everything? Left only with his beloved son, the man faces the task of raising him in the face of such inconceivable horror. He bears a pistol with two bullets, a preferable death to the torturous one at the hands of flesh-eaters. In their travels the man and the boy encounter others – some good, some not and some uncertain. An old man (Robert Duvall) and a thief (Michael K. Williams of “The Wire”) are particularly memorable. To what extent can the father protect his son? How can they remain, as the man always says, the good guys, always carrying the fire?
The world is stark, the actions in them for the most part minimalistic. Sparsely but gorgeously composed, Hillcoat reduces the father and son against abandoned cityscapes and yawning forests (shooting in decrepit areas of Pittsburgh and New Orleans). There is a genuine attempt to recapitulate the hushed yet harrowing force of McCarthy’s text.
But at the same time there seems to be an intimacy that has been lost from the recesses of the novel. The power of “The Road” is in part derived from its psychic introspection, the wonderful turn of an ugly phrase, that tendency for words to sink in slowly but surely. And here I identify the film’s greatest fault: its need to express that same power through its score. Nick Cave, a usual collaborator of Hillcoat’s, employs emotionally heavy-handed music which tells its audience how and when to feel.
The astounding sonic landscape—one of screams and the occasional gunshot, of crackling flames, of a creaking abandoned tanker ship in the distance—speaks enough. The monumental love between the man and his child speaks enough. Mr. Hillcoat, we don’t need hints. We feel it completely. It’s too close to home to ignore.
“The Road” was released November 2009 in limited theaters. It will be playing at 7 and 10pm in Dana Auditorium on Friday, March 12, 2010.
[Originally reviewed for The Middlebury Campus]
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TAGS: Charlize Theron • Cormac McCarthy • film • John Hillcoat • Kodi Smit-McPhee • Movie review • The Road • Viggo Mortensen
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