Dec 2 2009

The Road

Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. This week the guys break from their schedule to check out a movie in theaters now, and one that’s being talked about as a possible Oscar contender (especially with the expanded ten best picture nominations).

The Road
Year: 2009
Directed by: John Hillcoat
Written by: Joe Penhall
Based on: Novel by Cormac McCarthy
Starring: Viggo Mortenson, Charlize Theron
Genre: Drama

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

The Road is the feel-good movie of the year. Okay, I guess that’s not true, you won’t really feel good either during or after this movie. Shall we call it the feel-well movie of the year? This is a little more accurate because it does a good job of making you feel something, and therefore executes the job of manipulating your emotions well. Even at this though, it is certainly not the best of the year, primarily because the film has essentially one emotion to give you, and one note to play, and does so repeatedly throughout the film. That said, The Road, directed by John Hillcoat, based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, and starring Viggo Mortenson, is a very good film, and one worth seeing if you’re willing to trudge through all the bleakness and depression.

The film drops you almost directly into its post-apocalyptic setting. We get a quick (thirty second) montage of Viggo Mortenson as “Man” and Charlize Theron as “Woman” during happier days before being plunged into the earthquake and fire-laden world of the near future, one which contains only the Man and his Boy (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee). From this point on the film focuses primarily on the Man and the Boy trying desperately to survive as they trek south down the road. All the food sources in the world were either destroyed or consumed in the years since the apocalypse, so they are both starving and travelling through newly perilous territory (a.k.a. everywhere).

The stakes are high (life or death, doesn’t get much higher) and so is the amount of climax (at least in the Man’s view, everything is a danger, although how much of the world is dangerous becomes one of the primary conflicts between the Man and his Boy). With the world in its dying condition, you would think that there would be a lot of different dangers and conflicts to explore, but this movie unfortunately chooses to focus primarily on one. Cannibalism. Cannibalism certainly is dark, perhaps the darkest depths that humanity can go to. It does a good job of turning human characters into pure black evil, and also brings into focus the primary theme of film, that of how humanity can exist once all of the things we have built have been taken away from us. It’s also just plain disturbing. There’s a particularly well executed scene in which the Man and the Boy are searching a household when they come across a locked cellar and are unpleasantly surprised by its contents. The tension and the suspense of this scene are greatly affected by what the audience knows is coming from outside the home, while the events inside bring home just how dangerous and simply evil the impending danger is. Unfortunately, aside from cannabilism, the film doesn’t really prevent us with any other interesting effects on society during an apocalypse. Again and again we’re presented with variations on man-hunting communities, but we so rarely see any other types of groupings. It just felt like there was more that could have been done with this premise.

The tone is similarly consistent throughout the film. What’s happening in the present is certainly bleak and desperate. Watching a man and son slowly starve and hide from horrors can be wearing, and there is only one true “break” in the film, and the audience knows even that is temporary as they are watching it. Similarly, every time we jump away from the present, into the flashbacks featuring the Man’s wife/mother to the Boy (Theron), we’re treated to something even more depressing. There’s nothing more depressing than seeing a Mother turn her back on her own family. Charlize Theron does her best to make this role sincere, but I did struggle to believe in a mother who would be able to do this. So, jumping between these two timelines offers no emotional relief, and you’re forced to just sit through what feels like a very long 112 minutes seeing the same emotional beats rip you apart again and again.

While there’re no bright spots in the tone of this film, there are some for the viewer. By this I mean you get to experience an extremely well executed film and affecting film, however bleak it is. The acting is certainly a strong point here. There’s not a ton of dialogue to work with, but Viggo Mortenson manages to shine anyway by emoting in extremely subtle yet clear ways. The fact that this guy is considering retirement is very disappointing, what artist can really leave is art form behind? The Boy is fantastic for someone his age, also managing to keep his acting toned down but delivering some of the most important emotional points in the film. He sometimes falls a bit close to the “annoying child actor” line, but never seems to trip across it, keeping us firmly in the reality of the film. As mentioned before, we get to see Charlize Theron often, though never in the same depraved context as most of the other characters. She has a tough job in humanizing a character that seems to have had the human heart torn out of her, and I do believe she manages to pull it off (though barely). This character, luckily, is counterbalanced by the Boy in the present. We see our characters in two primary stages: those who have given up on humanity, such as the Man in the Present, and the Woman in the past. And those who haven’t: the Man of the past and the Boy of the present. Viggo Mortenson is the only one who must deliver both these mentalities, and he manages to do it brilliantly, primarily through the use of his eyes. There really aren’t many other featured actors in this film, but Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce deliver important yet brief performances that really float the film into a more bearable place. With the film primarily being as bleak as it is, it takes some (heavily disguised) star power to give you any sort of sense of ease when leaving the theater, and both these actors had the gravitas to do it.

I’ve used the word bleak to describe this film many times already, but since it’s really the most apt word, I might as well add it in a few more times. The cinematography is equally bleak. The look of the film is very grey, with almost all the color drained from it. The only time in the present timeline when you really see anything that isn’t grey or an extremely desaturated blue is when there’s a fire or a few extremely important hope-inducing items pop up. There isn’t much contrast here either, everything kind of blends together into one bleached world. All of this really reflects the emotions of the characters and how they (or at least the Man, who seems to be the primary perspective for the film) see the world. It would’ve been interesting if the cinematography’s interpretation passed on to the child’s viewpoint and changed somehow during the course of the movie, but it may have betrayed the tone of the film. Even with all this desperate sorrow in the visuals, the film still manages to be completely gorgeous. The composition and broad landscapes brilliantly features the desolation of the production design (also subtly barren). This is a world that was not only destroyed but also abandoned, just as many of the men and woman have similarly abandoned their aspirations to humanity, and there’s a poetry to the wreckage here that you don’t get out of something like the recent 2012. A particularly stunning shot featuring a plain scattered with partially fallen power lines and poles caught my eye, but it’s only one of many, as this film gives itself the space to really impart on you the world that these characters are trapped in.

All said and done, The Road is a great film that is not for everyone. It’s slow, it can be repetitive in drilling its point home, and it’s certainly depressing. It’s an ordeal to trudge through the road alongside these characters, but ultimately it is rewarding. And on the plus side, you don’t leave the theater in a state of devastation, as the audience discovers alongside the characters that there may still be something of the human condition left in all this wreckage.

Benn says:

Most post-apocalyptic films are fun; films like The Road Warrior, The Omega Man, and Zombieland ask the question, “What would you do if you were amongst the last on Earth?” This question is usually answered with leather jackets, Dodge Trans-Ams, Eighties metal and thrilling car chases and gun fights. The Road is not one of these films. Not by a long shot.

Taking place ten years after an unnamed cataclysmic event scorched the Earth, The Road, gives us no sawed-off shotguns, cartoonish marauders, or urban playgrounds, but instead gives us the sobering reality of a world without resources, without decency and without hope. This version of Earth isn’t dying; its dead and rotting from the inside out.

The film follows a father, known only as “The Man” (Viggo Mortensen), and his ten-year-old son, “The Boy” (Kodi Smit-McPhee), as they walk the abandoned roads somewhere in the East coast trying to reach the ocean. There is no rumor floating around that there is anything there, but traveling to the edge of the Earth does seem like the most logical step to take after the apocalypse. The journey, however, is no walk in the park; the Man and Boy endure hunger, sickness, and a sever lack of shelter and simple luxuries that people today take for granted. And if that isn’t bad enough, the last remaining humans have turned into scavengers; killing, raping, looting and eating any traveler they happen to run in to.

Trying to raise his son to become a decent human being in a world where decency may get you killed, the Man instills his son with an ever-prevailing spirit, insisting that they need to “carry the fire” of humanity wherever they go. However, the Man draws this faint idealism from his son, looking to him as the only reason to stay alive. Throughout the journey, we are given flashbacks of the Man’s past when the Man and his wife (Charlize Theron) tried to survive in their old home with their then-newborn son. Unlike her husband, the wife finds no solace of hope in this world, and consistently fights with her husband to follow the status quo and commit suicide, escaping a world that has gone down the drain, and continues to grow darker and more awful by the minute. Theron does a wonderful part playing a very unlikable, yet realistic character that, despite the admirable spirit of her husband, reflects the state of mind most people would probably collapse towards after the End.

Director John Hillcoat is the best director to have taken Cormac McCarthy’s original novel and bring to life on the silver screen. Like his last film, The Proposition, Hillcoat portrays the world as a deserted, silent and cruel landscape that speaks volumes all on its own. There is little dialogue in the film, and many scenes are just the Man and the Boy pushing their shopping cart full of supplies along a wasteland of nothing; never has so little been so effective. However, the emotional center of the film lies in the father and son, and their stagnant surroundings acts as the perfect villain against the protagonists’ will to never give up. As a result, the audience is part of the tug-of-war between idealism and reality. I mean, sure, the human spirit is warm and fuzzy, but how can we believe in it if the world looks like this?

Actors Mortensen and Smit-McPhee are an incredible team in this film. Like their characters, the two only have each other to count on, and the results are incredible. Mortensen’s performance of a concerned father is honest and heart breaking, and his internal struggles with the impossible decisions that are and yet to come are brazenly apparent, even when he isn’t saying anything at all.  Smit-McPhee has the disadvantage of having to be a ten-year-old boy, which can get a little tiresome after a while; all he does is slow his dad down. But then again, what ten year old wouldn’t? However, there are some pretty intense scenes that rely mostly, if not solely on Smit-McPhee’s little shoulders, and somehow he manages to act them out with a depth and maturity that is, to say the least, well beyond his years.

There are some difficult questions asked in this film, and the answers are either disturbing or unanswerable. Amongst the most troubling is suicide rate amongst families, in which most families choose kill themselves rather than suffer through an impossible world. The Man, despite his tenacity, keeps two emergency bullets in a revolver and teaches his son how to properly blow his brains out. There is even a scene in which the Man put his gun to his own son’s head when they under serious threat of being cornered by cannibals. This will surely disturb and disgust most, if not all viewers, and it should. But one would have to consider the changed world these two live in, and what that change has done to concepts of love and mercy. This idea of love echoes the works of novelist Toni Morrison, whose examples of love amidst a perverse world are twisted and violent. Morrison has written about love being circumstantial and reflective of the surrounding world, in which true love can mean killing your children to save them from the fate of slavery. Extreme? Most certainly, yet  one can’t help but wonder what is more cruel: killing your child quickly and without pain, or make them endure a world in which they could starve, freeze, become ill, get raped or eaten? Even if one evades such horrific fates, what kind of life can one lead if there is no life to look forward to?

Surely, this kind of soul crushing world that our world has become (and believe me, you will feel it) renders the Man’s survivalist philosophy seem like dated heroics, and in a way it is; planet Earth had died, most of it people have died, there is no food or clothing, no power, and the few who are left have either killed themselves or have become mangy animals. That being said, the Man’s utter desperation to hold onto the old ways of common decency and civilization make his plight believable, and his struggle to uphold this code gets rough. Yet, what else is there to do in a world like this? To forever more endure this vision of the world may be unrealistic, it may even be unwise, but why the hell would you want to be wise and practical in a place that promises death and depression; walking a road that could lead to absolutely nothing can also lead you anywhere you’d like. This kind of murky idealism is what gives The Road it’s sliver of hope, the idea that no matter what the world becomes, you don’t have to follow suit. Even if it’s hopeless, even if there is nothing left to live for, you can always find something to create hope, you can always chase a dream. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather chase a dream than wait around for the inevitable.

I don’t want to live in this version of the post-apocalypse. I’d much rather tool around in a Dodge Charger, shooting zombies and Mohawk-sporting bikers, and build a life for myself out of forgotten retro rubble that would trump anything achievable in real, pre-apocalyptic life. But, then again, The Road isn’t supposed to be a thrill ride, it’s supposed to look at a very serious situation seriously, asking the hard questions and giving us the unwatchable answers. The world is dead, and there isn’t much we can or could do to stop it if it happened, but The Road gives the hardships that always accompany the road best, but not easily traveled. Even if it goes nowhere. Especially when it gives you something to look for.

Benn’s rebuttal:

In keeping with LS2FG tradition, James and I are on the same page with this film.

One thing James brought up that I didn’t mention in my review is how the cinematography in this film is poetic; for a world that is so gray and dead, cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe makes it look unusually beautiful.

James’ rebuttal:

Not much to argue here.  Your claim that Hillcoat was simply the best director to take on this work might be a little exaggerated, he did an excellent job but I wonder if another director might have brought a bit more dynamicism to this film.  That was the only thing that I really felt was missing throughout.

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