Sony // 2009 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // May 24th, 2010
"You have to keep carrying the fire." The Man
Cormac McCarthy's (No Country for Old Men) Pulitzer-prize winning novel comes to the screen courtesy of upstart Aussie-Canadian director John Hillcoat (The Proposition).
"The clocks stopped at one seventeen one morning. There was a long shear of bright light, then a series of low concussions. Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road. I think it's October but I can't be sure. I haven't kept a calendar for five years. Each day is more gray than the one before. Each night is darker -- beyond darkness. The world gets colder week by week as the world slowly dies. No animals have survived. All the crops are long gone. Someday all the trees in the world will have fallen. The roads are peopled by refugees towing carts and road gangs looking for fuel and food. There has been cannibalism. Cannibalism is the great fear. Mostly I worry about food, always food, food and our shoes. Sometimes I tell the boy old stories of courage and justice -- difficult as they are to remember. All I know is the child is my warrant and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke."
The synopsis above comes courtesy of narration by "The Man" (Viggo Mortensen, Hidalgo); his weary voice is soft and strained, like a tired whisper. The allusion is a nuclear catastrophe, but things are never spelled out for us. They do not have to be. All we need to know is that the end had come, and some survived. This future isn't a sun bleached desert full of nomads and leather daddies in retrofitted dune buggies. The Road, in spite of the premise, is not a science fiction film, it is a harrowing journey through a terrifying future that could very easily have been our own ultimate fate. It is as much about how the end affects humanity as it is about how it affects Mother Earth.
At the center of the film are two performances, Viggo Mortensen and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee (Romulus, My Father) as the father and son. They portray a pair of weary nomads who struggle to travel across the bleak wasteland that was America, in the hopes of making it to the coast. Viggo puts his all into this, and his haggard appearance and weariness never feel anything but real. He goes to the typical extremes, including starving himself to get the look just right. He inhabits this role, physically and mentally, his naked emotions on screen for all to see. Kodi, who was 11 during filming, holds his own with equal passion. His breakdowns are heart-wrenching, and his humanity is the counterpoint to Viggo's paranoia. He's held aloft by his father as some messianic figure, and indeed, his behaviour often shows us the best humanity can offer, his kindness reminiscent of another savior from an era long past. He's the lynchpin of the film, and he carries it amazingly well. This is a young actor to watch out for in future films.
The supporting cast consists of little more than cameos, but chief among them is Robert Duvall(Apocalypse Now), as an aging traveller, near blind and scarcely able to walk, who takes advantage of the young boy's hospitality for a night. While sharing a campfire conversation with "The Man," we see why Duvall is a legend. It is a stunning display of a master at work. As immersed as Viggo is, Duvall makes it look effortless. Amidst all of the grime, the savagery, and the futility of the narrative, Duvall gives us the film's brightest moment, and I was left all that much more saddened when he trudged off into the distance. Charlize Theron (Monster) turns in wonderful work as well. She appears only in flashbacks, as mother and wife, and she does a fantastic job. The birth of her child is met with horror rather than joy, it's not enough that they survive, she wants to live. She doesn't want her boy to witness what the world has become. She is emotionally devastated by the state of humanity, and her exit from the film is a hard moment to witness.
Matching the calibre of the performances is John Hillcoat's direction. As with his previous film, Hillcoat brings an obscene layer of texture and believability to the setting, pulling the viewer into the world these characters inhabit. Never has the post-apocalypse been so terrifyingly and convincingly presented. Using bleak landscapes and a healthy dose of post-processing, the desaturated murky greys and off-greens sell us far more than any hundred million dollar special effects budget ever could. There's not much action on display, but tension runs throughout, and Hillcoat knows how to ratchet it for maximum effect. After The Proposition, and now The Road, John Hillcoat has become a man to watch in my book.
The on screen version of The Road is about as faithful an adaptation of the book as one can get. There are elements missing to be certain, most notably some of the atrocities witnessed by Father and Son in their cross-country post-apocalyptic road trip. That said, there's an intimacy to the word as written that just cannot be captured by the filmed version. McCarthy's elegant prose doesn't translate well to cinema without some caveats (yes, I feel the same way about No Country for Old Men as well). That is not to say that the film suffers, but it feels colder and more distant, becoming much harder to contemplate and wrap your head around on initial viewings.
Some will immediately appreciate what's presented, while others may need time, or a second viewing, to really feel things out. Still, others may be repulsed by the film to a degree that they have no interest in ever seeing it again (My wife was completely turned off by it). It makes for interesting, if divisive filmmaking, and particularly where The Road is concerned, one could sit and debate whether or not there's even any point to the film, or if there is any message or conclusion to be drawn. For me there is the journey, the humanity of the son rekindling the spirit of the father. If anything, look at the film as a character study, as a glimpse at what befalls humanity when our world is taken away from us. It's a challenging film, definitely not for those who just seek an evening of entertainment.
The Road fares well enough on Blu-ray, but things could have been a little stronger. The 1080p AVC transfer is soft at times, and there were several instances of edge halos and even some motion blur in darker scenes. The detail levels are definitely improved over the DVD counterpart, and the murky gloom of the film comes across well, but this isn't a disc you'll pull off the shelf to amaze, nor is it a significant a leap beyond the upscaled DVD. The audio is similarly workmanlike, with decent separation and an immersive soundfield. This isn't a raucous action film, however, so don't expect the paint to peel or your fillings to rattle. The moody score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is well separated, and there's no hiss or distortion in the dialog.
Extras are slim, with a handful of deleted scenes that aren't missed, but wouldn't have detracted from the finished film either. The making-of featurette is a brief puff piece that gushes over all the cast and crew involved. It doesn't aid in appreciating the film, it doesn't provide any food for thought, or much of glimpse into how the film came together. You can skip it and you wouldn't be missing anything. Lastly is the commentary by director John Hillcoat, which is sort of a chore as well. Hillcoat readily admits that he's doing it on the fly, and another participant, perhaps bringing Viggo and/or Kodi along to spur on conversation, would have helped here.
In all, it's a decent package, but I can't help but feel that the film deserves better.
The Road isn't an easy film to watch. Much like No Country for Old Men, it's a divisive tale that definitely won't be for everyone. It is a terrifying look at a future that could come to pass, and the value of humanity in a world that has already come to an end. It's a shame the Blu-ray presentation wasn't better, but it's passable.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Cinema Verdict Review