Road, The (United States, 2009)

November 22, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Road, The Poster

The Road is undoubtedly one of the fall's most anticipated offerings, in part because it has been lingering on the horizon of the cinematic landscape for a year. Originally scheduled for a release in late 2008, it was delayed when filmmaker John Hillcoat (The Proposition) determined that his preferred cut could not be made available in time. A tentative March 2009 opening was scratched when The Weinstein Company decided that the film had Oscar potential. So now, 12 months after its expected availability, Hillcoat's interpretation of Cormac McCarthy's brutal post-apocalyptic novel is ready for theatrical viewing.

To begin with, it's worth re-stating a point that has been made elsewhere: McCarthy is not easy to adapt. His novels have largely been ignored as source material for motion pictures for this reason. The Coens changed that with No Country for Old Men, but their success doesn't mean the task is easier - just that it's feasible. Some might argue that The Road is among McCarthy's most inherently non-cinematic books, even going so far as to call it "unadaptable." With this consideration in mind, one has to be impressed by what Hillcoat and his screenwriter, Joe Penhall, have accomplished. The movie The Road is nowhere close to its literary sire, but it's probably the best one could hope for from a movie version.

This is not a good date movie (unless you have an understanding and open-minded date) and it's not a feel-good opportunity. As those who have read McCarthy's novel are aware, this is a tough, tough story. It's about loss, death, isolation, and the fine line that divides good from evil, man from animal. Yes, The Road ends on what can best be described as a hopeful note, but that doesn't wipe away the nearly two hours of emotional punishment that precede it. Those willing to travel The Road need to know what to expect going in, and have to be willing to accept the film for what it is. It's forceful, but it's not fun.

Before the movie opens, an unspecified cataclysm has impacted the world. Its specifics are never revealed, but they are not germane to the story. The Road follows two survivors: Father (Viggo Mortensen) and Son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they go about the day-to-day business of existence some number of years after The Fall. The Mother (Charlize Theron), who didn't give birth until after the cataclysm, is no longer around. As we see in flashbacks, increasing waves of despair led her to wander alone into the cold and dark and die. Father and Son traverse lonely roads with only the vaguest of goals in mind: reach the coast then head south, where there might be people. There are dangers aplenty, including amoral, cannibalistic gangs; disease; and, most pressing, starvation. Water is plentiful but food is not.

Actors Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee have difficult, physically demanding tasks. Mortensen, with an unkempt beard that makes him look like a mountain man, embodies someone who has decided to live instead of give up, and whose every ounce of effort is devoted to protecting his son. Smit-McPhee shows maturity and impressive range for one so young. The supporting cast, although small and each with roles little more substantive than cameos, is high-profile: Theron, Rubert Duvall, and Guy Pearce.

The Road is reminiscent of the '80s post-apocalyptic drama Testament, which also dealt with the concept of survival in a dying world. The Road is a little more bleak, in part because the filming locations convey genuine devastation (some scenes were shot in and around post-Katrina New Orleans) and in part because of the isolation of the main characters. The Father and Son are alone in the world. They must face the reality that there could be instances in which death would be preferable to the continuation of life. (The Father keeps a loaded gun with two bullets - one for himself and one for the boy.) The film depicts how dire circumstances can bring out the best and the worst in human beings - far more often the latter than the former.

The Road asks basic questions about what it means to be human, and whether the need to survive is a basic drive. Perhaps the central question is a simple one: Would you want to continue living if there was no hope of happiness and if everything was a struggle? When asked if he ever thought about giving up and dying, the vagabond played by Robert Duvall has a simple answer: "No. In these times, we can't afford such luxuries."

The look of the film is evocative, with frequent shots of broken cities, blasted forests, and wide expanses of dead country. The only sun is in brief, beautiful flashbacks that end with sudden jolts back to reality. The sky is a constant slate gray and it seems to be raining as often as it is merely cloudy. Color is desaturated; The Road might just as easily have been filmed in black-and-white. There are those who will condemn this picture as being two grueling, torturous hours. In some ways, it's hard to disagree with this - it is difficult and at times unpleasant. But it's also powerful and provides unsparing insight into human nature. There's an unfortunate tendency to turn post-apocalyptic stories into rousing action/adventure epics (one shudders at the consideration of what may be planned by Roland Emmerich for his TV "sequel" to 2012). By taking a more realistic approach, The Road suggests that dying in a global catastrophe may be a better alternative to surviving beyond it.

Road, The (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 2009-11-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1