Thursday, December 31, 2009

All Roads End Here

THE ROAD (2009)
D. John Hilcoat
Dimension Films


This adaptation of the much-loved Cormac McCarthy book about a father and son surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland has been a long time coming. First announced for release in October 2008 the studio claimed it was not ready due to massive amounts of special effects shots left to do. It was reset for a year later, but bumped again to be released during Oscar season during the winter. Then the Weinstein brothers, in their infinite wisdom, decided to roll the movie out in 100 theaters with little to no fanfare, and quietly added a few more in the following weeks as reviews came in. Basically, they dumped the movie.

In some ways, it's understandable. This is a hard film to categorize and even harder to sell. The trailers for it were downright misleading, opening with shots of some sort of global cataclysm, actively showing the world ending. Sort of a darker, more realistic version of the Roland Emmerich movie 2012. Problem being such footage isn't in the film and never was. The entire story of the movie takes place AFTER these events - long after, with the events themselves never names or discussed. The trailers also make the film look like some sort of action, horror hybrid piece. While the movie is indeed horrifying, it most certainly is not an action piece, and not really a horror film either. It's a brooding drama about survival, sustaining life and teaching your young to be a better person than yourself. The story is about preparing your child for the big, scary, ugly world, while not becoming the monsters you want to protect them against. All the apocalypses in this story are really personal ones.

Viggo debates using one of those all important last bullets.

The story begins ever briefly with Viggo Mortinson waking up in his bed to an earthquake. His pregnant wife (Charlize Theron) enters the room, chaos can be heard from outside in the world. We realize this is in fact a dream of a life long before as he's asleep on the cold ground next to a child. They are wrapped in a plastic sheet and filthy to the bone. Clearly they have been here a while.

Then my main bugaboo with the film begins: a narration/inner monologue from Mortinson that explains far too much of what's happening. As he and the boy awaken, the narration tells us there was some apocalypse, though doesn't say what kind, and that everyone died off. Those who were left became scavengers and cannibals, while food, gas and most importantly, shoes, became the only commodities left to fight and search for. This is over a montage that shows the two of them walking around trying to find food, gas, as well as lots of shots of their ragged shoes. They find an old barn that holds a family that have hung themselves, and when the boy asks Viggo why they did it, he replies "You know why. To be together." Moments later, Viggo is showing the boy his revolver and reiterating to him that they only have two bullets left, one for him and one for the son. He shows him how to put the gun into his mouth to successfully kill himself if the time comes.

There is a very strong "Lone Wolf and Cub" vibe going on in the later part of this film.

But mostly they wander about this broken wasteland of gray trees, dank water, and forever rain and snow. They survive on bugs, the sparce remains of picked-over carcasses, and the occasional one soda that was wedged into an ancient machine. All the while, the father tries to explain things to his son as to why they must continue on. Why they must get to the south. Flashbacks show us that the mother wanted them all to commit suicide together years ago to avoid the nightmare before them, but the father refused. So she left him, walked into the cold and presumably died. Now he and his son are sort of doing the same, but fighting the elements to try and survive. Often, the boy seems to want to die - he wants to see his mother again, he's tired of being cold, hungry and alone. He's also very aware that he's the only child left in the world, since the other ones were eaten by roving packs of people who have turned cannibal to get by. When they meet a group of such feral survivalists and the father is forced to use one of the bullets to save his son, there is a paradigm shift in their relationship. The son sees a savagery in his father awaken that he is uncomfortable with. A willingness to resort to violence that he previously thought separated them from "the bad guys".

Eventually, the movie becomes a trial of which one of the main characters is going to die first, since both of them are clearly ill. At this point, the entire movie becomes a bleak spread of hopelessness that's hard to get through. The final curtain call of the film feels like a nice positive wrap up, until you connect a couple of dots from earlier and then it really isn't at all, at least that's how I read it. Movies do not come any more bleak and ravaged as The Road.

But in a way, they don't come as beautiful either. There are moments of unique tranquility throughout the film. This is a rare movie that allows itself the chance to often just be quiet and exist in the world it has created. The vistas while father and son watch the horizon smolder and burn, the miles and miles of fallen dead trees. Many empty houses, alone on a clear landscape in a dead sky. These almost painterly like canvases are punctuated with moments of humanity, like when the duo find a waterfall and plunge in nude and laughing to get clean. Or when they finally stumble on the mother load of food and supplies and hole up for a while and Dad proceeds to smoke some pot and drink some Jack Daniels. Or when the son gets exceedingly upset when he thinks he's seen another little boy in a burned out apartment window, but the father knows this is impossible.

Even when you are the last brother on Earth you still have a hard time getting any respect.

There are horribly shocking moments too, mostly to do with the cannibalism which is not played down. There are guts strewn on a street, a basement full of emaciated, some limbless, people that are basically being kept as cattle, and sinks full of facial parts that have been stripped from bodies. It never goes full throttle into CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST fare, but is forthright enough to be very upsetting. Especially to those not sure what to expect.

My largest problem here was not the movie but how I saw it. I have been waiting over a year to see this and was really pissed when the release pattern was screwed up. So when it hit our local art theater I was relieved it was gonna play my town at all. But little did I know the theater would stick it in their tiny 50 seat auditorium where the screen is so small someone's home theater set up is probably more impressive. This is a movie where the cinematography is a character, but I was watching it on like a nine or ten foot screen, being projected so low that all the heads in front of me were now players in the movie too. This frustrated me so much that I never properly got into the movie. I felt completely distanced the entire time, like I was always outside the frame trying to get in. This is a movie that should have been big, overpowering and washingover me. Instead it was like seeing it as a postage stamp.

Still it is a powerful, incredibly acted, impeccably shot and directed film. Director John Hilcoat's previous films THE PROPOSITION and GHOSTS OF THE CIVIL DEAD are quit excellent work, and this, though not quite as good as those two, still carries on his tradition of top notch production. Only the narration (which I've heard IS partially in the book and partially created for the movie) is annoying and a misfire.

Review © Andrew Copp

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