I love post apocalyptic stories. The idea of a world so changed that the way humans have to interact and exist is so different from our own is just interesting. Gaming has been all over the idea recently, from Fallout 3 and its famed wasteland or even World of Warcraft getting into the act with Cataclysm. One of my favorite short stories is “I have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison (actually most anything by Ellison is great) in which five humans roam a world now ruled by a giant super computer. Some stories can be action oriented (Mad Max) and some a bit more low key and realistic (Fallout on hardcore mode) but all share the same trait ; desperation. The Road, a film directed by John Hillcoat and based off the novel by Cormac McCarthy, is another story set in the post apocalyptic United States. It’s a film that focuses not on the why’s and how’s of an apocalypse, but what a father and his young son have to do to survive. There is no saving society, there’s really no society left to be saved. Viggo Mortensen plays “Man” and Kodi Smit-Mcphee (who went on to star in the excellent Let Me In) plays “Boy”. The fact these characters have no names is telling, there’s no need for them. Their stated goal is to journey south into warmer climate, but the real goal is merely to survive. It’s a touching journey between a father and son set against one of the most hopeless settings I’ve ever seen in a film.
The Road is carried by the performance of Viggo Mortensen. This entire movie is a slow burn with very little action. I’m a fan of dramas and slower paced movies, but this was a little much even for me at points. However I always remained interested because Mortensen as “Man” was so compelling. I went in thinking that the fact the world is now an almost lifeless wasteland would be much harder on the “Boy”, but the life of scavenging and constant movement is the only one he’s ever known. Mortensen does a supreme job of showing how much harder it is to know what was lost than to have never known at all. That he manages to get this point across to the audience while maintaining a show of strength and confidence for his son is a testament to his performance. Smit-McPhee is also impressive as the Boy, working with a tough emotional role at such a young age. As a child he’s fearful of what this world is but maintains a peace and innocence that keeps the Man going. The most valuable possession the two have is a pistol, with two bullets. Obviously it could be used for self-defense, but it becomes clear early on that the Man would consider turning those bullets on himself and his son to avoid the fates worse than death that now are common place in the wasteland.
One such fate is being eaten by other survivors, as there are groups that have turned to cannibalism in the absence of animals. Even failing that, groups of bandits populate the country side ready to kill and take all the Man’s possessions, even if they aren’t going to eat him. The entire atmosphere is oppressively bleak. This is thematically and literally a very dark film. The only flashes of light we’re granted are in flashback sequences to days before whatever happened. There we get a glimpse of what life was like for the Man before the world changed, and we meet his wife, of course only referred to as “Woman”. Despite these flashbacks including the start of the apolcapyse, what actually happened is never explained or even discussed. The Woman is played by Charlize Theron, in what amounts to only a small role. But much like the rest of the supporting cast she gives a memorable performance despite the limited screen time. How she handles being present at the end of the world as we know it is fascinating. Small role but memorable performance also applies to Robert Duvall, who plays the…..Old Man. He encounters Mortensen and Smit-McPhee on their travels and shares a poignant scene that reveals a bit about both the Man and the Boy’s character.
While the acting is powerful and setting gorgeous (in a bleak way) the film does do a little too much plodding for its own good. For every truly tense and exciting moment there’s longer periods of calm that drag on just a tad too long. I’m all for setting the mood and don’t mind the lack of action but The Road will over stay its welcome by about ten minutes of screen time. The film is also relentlessly bleak. It had to be so to accurately portray what life would be like given the circumstances, but I caution any viewer to be in the right mood going in. I will spoil no plot details, but even with moments of levity and happiness (which are still precious few, although each one is earned), The Road paints remains sullen throughout.
This all becomes worth it because of Viggo Mortensen, however. I remember not knowing who he was until his iconic role in Lord of the Rings. He hasn’t done a ton of high-profile movies since but has absolutely killed it in some lesser known films (Eastern Promises anybody?). He’s at his best here as well. His portrayal of a Father trying to love, educate, and protect his son in the worst circumstances a person could think of stayed with me after the film. Every decision he makes about what to do next could lead to death and I could see it on his face the whole movie. The Road is not a fun experience, nor is it even hopeful. It is a story of one man trying to survive for his son, but knowing the chances of doing so get smaller everyday. Smit-McPhee is excellent as the boy and deserves credit, but I’m sure even he would say this film is Mortensen’s. Despite the run time that’s a little long in the tooth and the aforementioned pacing issues, The Road is worth viewing to see Mortensen. It’s a great performance.
Filed under: Movies | Tagged: apocalypse, bandit, cannibal, Charlize Theron, Cormac McCarthy, father's love, Guy Pearce, Harlan Ellison, I have no mouth but I must scream, John Hillcoat, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Let Me in, post apocalyptic, Robert Duvall, The Road, The Road review, two bullets left, Viggo Mortensen |