'The Road': Been there, done this post-apocalyptic reckoning
By Ann Hornaday
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
A great film has been made about a father and son who embark on an arduous journey of self-discovery, filial bonding and profound moral reckoning, set against a grim backdrop of post-apocalyptic misery.
It's called "District 9," and it will be available on DVD in a few weeks.
As for "The Road," the highly anticipated and much-delayed adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, it too aspires to greatness. And in many ways it succeeds, as it brings to bleak life McCarthy's story of an unnamed man and boy trying to survive a catastrophe of unknown origin, with their bodies and souls intact. Director John Hillcoat, who made an astonishing U.S. debut with the Australian western "The Proposition" in 2005, brings all his visual and imaginative powers to bear in creating a desaturated landscape of abandoned homes, deserted freeways and charred trees that topple over as if from sheer spiritual exhaustion. The only living things to be found are roving bands of survivors who have turned to cannibalism or, as in the case of "The Road's" two anonymous protagonists, those who steadfastly refuse to eat people and instead forage for what they can glean from the odd soda machine or still-intact pantry.
Viggo Mortensen delivers a haunting, sensitive portrayal of a father determined to shepherd his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to safety, toward the coast, where it's warm. As the duo make their way through a world turned grim and gray, the father comes to see the boy as a kind of spiritual avatar. "If he isn't the word of God, then God never spoke," he intones in a voiceover. Looking like a cadaverous Civil War soldier from a Mathew Brady daguerreotype, Mortensen's character occasionally flashes back to the moment the plague hit, when his wife (Charlize Theron) gave birth to their child, then came to her own grievous decisions about their future. "The Road" is one long dirge, a keening lamentation marking the death of hope and the leeching of all that is bright and good from the world.
"We're the good guys," the boy says, repeating one of the lessons from his father's ongoing course of moral instruction, whereby one is either a good guy or a bad guy, and carries "the fire" within or doesn't. Presumably, fans of McCarthy's novel will be well pleased with the care and somber respect Hillcoat and his cast bring to "The Road," which deserves praise for its ambition, tonal control and stark visual design. But, like "No Country for Old Men," it's possible to admire "The Road" and still harbor deep misgivings about how much technical and artistic virtuosity are being thrown at an essentially thin, hopelessly mannered story.
Stripped of his tough, plainspoken prose, McCarthy traffics in emotions every bit as highly pitched as the most lurid melodrama. He loves to put his characters -- and by extension, the audience -- in situations of unbearable suffering, to see if they're worthy of his exacting ethical standards. He's a stylishly austere sadist. After Mortensen's character and the boy narrowly escape death at the hand of yet another flesh-eating wraith, viewers may be forgiven for wishing for "No Country's" Anton Chigurh to show up with his stun gun and put all of us out of our misery.
As a spiritual allegory, "The Road" aims to celebrate moral clarity in the face of nihilistic despair, a sense of right and wrong here reflected in a child's instinctive love of justice and compassion. It's a beautiful idea poetically conveyed in the service of thoroughly undeserving source material. "The Road" possesses undeniable sweep and a grim kind of grandeur, but it ultimately plays like a zombie movie with literary pretensions.
The Road -- (113 minutes, at Regal Gallery Place, Landmark Bethesda Row and Fairfax Corner) is rated R for violence, disturbing images and profanity.