Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron
Rated R for Some Violence, Disturbing Images and Language
"The Road" has to be the most downbeat, depressing and cynical movie I've ever seen. That's not meant as a criticism, but a fact. This is a tough movie to get through, but not a chore. Those who venture in will find their time well spent, albeit not in a necessarily pleasant way. Then again, if a movie is based off a novel by Cormac McCarthy, "pleasant" isn't a word one would hope to be used to describe it.
The film takes place after the world has ended. How it happened is not explained because it doesn't matter. But any hope of the Earth recovering from what happened has long since gone. A man (Mortensen) and his son (Smit-McPhee) are travelling together, trying to "get to the coast." There are few people left, although considering what many are doing with the goal of survival, that's a good thing. It soon becomes clear to the man, and his son, that the goal of reaching the coast is simply a motivation. Survival is a human instinct, but in this case, it may just be prolonging the inevitable.
I started reading "The Road," actually. I didn't finish it, mainly because it didn't seem to be going anywhere. That problem has been rectified here. Not much happens in this movie, but director John Hillcoat, who I've never been a fan of, lets it play out with the rhythms of a traditional narrative. There are variations in pacing, plot and so on. There isn't a lot that goes on in this movie, but at the same time it's never boring.
Really, there are only two performances that matter, and they are Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee. The role of the man is within Mortenson's limited range. His sole focus is keeping his son alive. His life, and anyone else's, are irrelevant. For his part, young Aussie actor Kodi Smit-McPhee also impresses. The boy was born shortly after the apocalypse happened, so he doesn't know anything else. He craves human interaction and doesn't understand how petty and treacherous humankind can be.
I mentioned before that this movie is bleak. That is an understatement. How can I describe how bleak this movie is? After days (I had to split the viewing of this movie into chunks because it was so savage) of searching, I realize that I cannot. Like "Boyhood" or "Captain Phillips," "The Road" cannot be described. I could mention the camerawork of Javier Aguirresarobe, who leeches out almost all of the color and emphasizes the sparse, dead landscape. I could mention the uncompromising frankness of the direction by John Hillcoat, who spares us nothing (well almost, an infamous element in the book was filmed but deleted because it would have pushed the film over the edge). But it wouldn't do any good.
One reason is that, even with the most violent ("Dawn of the Dead") or sad ("Carriers") movies that take place after the world ends, there is always an element of hope. A possibility that, no matter how hard or how long it will take, it is possible to start over. Not here. This is a grim, hopeless environment where it seems that avoiding death is simply prolonging the inevitable for reasons that, when seriously considered, are rather dubious.
The last scene betrays the film's convictions. After suffering through so much with the characters, adding that element of hope, while appreciated on a certain level, feels like a cheat. Wouldn't it have been better, or at least more appropriate, had the film stuck to its own course?