Ann Hornaday movie reviews: Viggo Mortensen in 'The Road'; Clooney in 'Mr. Fox'

(Sean McCabe for The Washington Post)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
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 they 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 leaching 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 good or bad, and carries "the fire" within or doesn't. Presumably, fans of McCarthy's novel will be 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 whether 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 appetites may not be cannibalistic, but they're no less sanguinary in "Fantastic Mr. Fox," Wes Anderson's piquant adaptation of the Roald Dahl book that adds yet another wry, carefully composed bibelot to the cabinet of curios that defines the Anderson oeuvre.

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" features George Clooney as the title character, who as the movie opens is stealing squabs, only to be apprehended and, we're meant to assume, rehabilitated. Two years later, he's living in cozy domesticity with Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and working as a journalist, a profession only slightly less disreputable than the one he had before. Still, the dapper, cosmopolitan Mr. Fox is experiencing a bout of midlife dissatisfaction, which he addresses first by buying a house far beyond his means in a very grand tree, then by reverting to his poultry-stealing ways and, when his recidivism threatens his entire community, taking his family and neighbors with him on an "Ocean's Eleven"-type spree of circuitous capers.

Anderson is famous for his love of foursquare framing, meticulous composition and musical ear tuned to simultaneously arcane and of-the-moment frequencies. All those elements are on display in "Fantastic Mr. Fox," thereby resulting in a movie that is twee and ultra-hip at the same time. Filmed in archaic stop-motion animation with puppets dressed in charmingly bespoke threads, the entire enterprise ambles along with a laid-back, low-key vibe, reinforced by the actors' understated voice work. (Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe and Brit rocker Jarvis Cocker show up in cameos, as does Anderson rep player Owen Wilson in the movie's funniest scene, in which he explains the labyrinthine rules of a game called "whack-bat.")

From the awkward, herky-jerky movements of the title character, who looks as if he's walking around on fur-covered stilts, to the movie's rich autumnal palette of russets and golds, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" sticks to a genteel, adamantly slowed-down ethos, offering a welcome respite from the whiz-bang computer effects and 3-D hype of current animated movies. If it displays the same hermetic, precious sensibility and inside-joke humor that have turned viewers off in Anderson's previous movies ("Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Darjeeling Limited"), the film also exudes undeniable, infectious whimsy and warmth. Young Ash never reminds Mr. Fox that they're the good guys as they claw and tunnel through one of their exploits. He doesn't have to. In its own gentle way, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" imparts lessons as profound as "The Road's" about love and gratitude and awareness of others. It just has more fun doing it.

** 1/2

The Road

(113 minutes, at Regal Gallery Place, Landmark Bethesda Row and Fairfax Corner) is rated R for violence, disturbing images and profanity.


Fantastic Mr. Fox

(87 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for action and smoking.

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