The Road (2009), Rated R
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron
Directed by John Hillcoat
Review by David L. Felts
While I’m on the topic of apocalyptic movies (see my Book of Eli movie review), I figured I’d offer up one of The Road. The Road, an award winning book by Cormac MacCarthy, was delivered as a movie with Viggo Mortensen starring as the title character, The Man. The only other character of note is The Boy, played by Kodi McPhee. Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall also make appearances, but not in any sort of impactful way; Theron as the wife in flashback scenes (in a much expanded–yet still superfluous–role in the movie) and Duvall as an old man they run into during their travels.
I both read the book and saw the movie. On the book all I’ll offer is that I found it… artificial, like the way a book feels when the author sets out to make a point rather than write a story. No plot to speak of, and the artifice of constantly referring them The Man and The Boy grew tiresome. Tip to aspiring writers. Let the story make your point, not the other way around, and don’t be pretentious. In other words, don’t try to be Cormam MacCarthy until you’re at his level, if you ever are.
For the most part, the movie held pretty true to the book, in that The Man and The Boy are on the road and traveling south, ostensibly to see if it will be any warmer/better there, but primarily because they really don’t have anything else to do. Human beings, even in the most desolate of circumstances, are wont to subsist on hope; hope that things will be better, can be better, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
Yet there’s no promise of hope awaiting them; south is simply a direction to go, as good as any other. The world they travel through has been completely destroyed. The entire landscape is one of desolation–no plants, no animals, nothing but dust, ash, dead trees and grey snow falling from an iron sky.
The Man and The Boy are on the constant lookout, since the primary source of food in this world seems to be other people. They scurry and scamper across this barren landscape, barely subsisting on whatever they can scavenge. This constant threat of starvation was more ‘real’ in the book, since even character actors like Mortensen, who dieted down to wiry thinness, still can’t portray the skeletal look required to impart a realistic impression of starvation. And the kid was thin enough, or at least as thin as normal kids should be (and were in the 1970s when I grew up), but aren’t so much today, where we have an abundance of corpulent pre-adolescents waddling about clutching bags of processed carbs and bottles of high fructose corn syrup cut with water. Although compared to them, I suppose a kid in the normal range for weight and height for his age these days probably does look starved.
The Road is a fine movie, but I don’t think anyone will actually enjoy it. Well, maybe film students watching it for the skillfulness of its craft, since it does indeed do what it set out to do very well. It certainly didn’t fit my definition of entertainment, but neither did Children of Men, yet I enjoyed that. The ironies Children of Men offered up on the nature of humanity and self-delusion were thought provoking.
But not so much for The Road. It’s not an uplifting movie, which is fine, but at the end of it all I was left thinking pretty much the same thing I already think: civilization is nothing more than a thin piece of plastic wrap stretched over the face of the beast. When you get right down to it, most of us would do pretty much whatever it takes to survive and take care of the people we love. Survival is hard-wired into the human animal, and it’s a difficult instinct to overcome. This point is is pervasive throughout The Road.
There’s a scene in Dawn of the Dead (the 2004 remake) where the character Frank, played by Boyd Banks, is about to turn into a zombie. He knows it’s going to happen, and he knows there’s no way to avoid it or stop it or change it. Vinge Rhames is standing over him with the gun, waiting for the transition to take place. We know it’s hopeless. So does Frank. Yet there he sits, on the very edge of turning into a zombie, of death, and he doesn’t want Rhames to shoot him, not yet, not yet, because You want… every… single second.
It’s like someone took that moment and made a movie about it.
The Road is not so much a testament to the human spirit as to the human will to survive and a father’s willingness to protect his child. There’s no momentum pulling the movie forward, just a man and his son pushing a rusty shopping cart through a devastated wasteland for no real reason, while we, the viewer, simply wait for bad things to happen.
Don’t misunderstand me–I think it’s a movie worth watching. But don’t look for any sort of warm, fuzzy feeling when the credits start to roll.