June 1, 2010

The Road: Too close for comfort?

Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½

What would cause the kind of half-hearted, faint-praise (if that) reviews given to the quite worthy film adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel The Road? If anything, it could be due to sheer fear. This John Hillcoat (director)/Joe Penhall (screenwriter) collaboration is one of the best post-apocalyptic movies to date – in terms of giving us the real deal (as in “bleak”), rather than making it a tad more palatable, even entertaining, as in pap like I Am Legend and its ilk. In terms of a fearsome view at what the post-nuclear-Armageddon might look like, this movie is far more frightening than the upcoming fear-mongering documentary about nuclear arms proliferation, Countdown to Zero. So bleak, so alternately horrifying and numbing is this film that you will actively not want to watch. I mean that as praise, for what other legitimate effect should a movie such as this one have?

Hillcoat, who a few years back gave us a dark and dirty The Proposition, and Penhall (who penned screenplays for Enduring Love and Some Voices) have collaborated well. Their just under two-hour movie, via flashbacks in the form of daydreams and night dreams, shows us moments of normal living that, against what our protagonists – a father and his young son, played respectively by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee – are currently experiencing, seem utterly idyllic. (Charlize Theron plays the wife/mother, long-gone, seen only in these flashbacks.) In minor roles are some prime performers: Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce and Molly Parker. If, in the end, you detect more hope than this scenario can legitimately bear, chalk it up to either producer interference and/or the need for as happy an ending as could possibly take place.

There is a sameness to much of the movie -- seemingly intentional -- since the duo is traveling on this titular road. To where? They don’t know (the sea maybe), nor do we, since the world as we know it has pretty much ended. But within this journey, there is enough variation to hold interest throughout – some of it shocking and ugly (the few people left alive seem to have become cannibals), one section thankfully restful and nurturing, with other scenes captivating in their own way.

Toward the end, a piece of advice is given -- "Stay off the road" -- that our protagonists might better have heeded had they but known. However, we might also take this advice to heart; the road we are on seems to be leading us to annihilation, whether nuclear, environmental or a combo of the two. Do you remember the old fairy-tale about how the sea became salty? That magical salt grinder buried beneath the waves that just keeps grinding on forever. Replace that grinder with the current BP gusher, and you have a non-fiction tale of how the sea became oily. Add a nuclear incident, accidental or not, and we'll be identifying big-time with these characters.

The Road may seem on the surface an endurance test but a worthwhile one -- if you can bear it.

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Posted by cphillips at June 1, 2010 9:02 AM
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