Friday, November 26, 2010

Review: The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)

Australian director John Hillcoat received critical stardom after his previous film, The Proposition, released in 2005. This time he tackles Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, The Road, a post-apocalyptic narrative that follows a father and his son trying to survive in a world destroyed by a monumental event that has depleted all civilization, and left the world a charred and barren landscape. Viggo Mortensen (best known for his portrayal of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and for his recent Oscar Nominated performance in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises) plays the father and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee (recently starring in Let Me In) his son. The film received a nomination for the Golden Lion at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, and is a very satisfying adaptation of McCarthy’s novel. 

Most of the remaining human survivors have resorted to cannibalism to survive and constantly patrol the open roads. The man and his son must scavenge and compete with these men for canned food, weapons and shelter. We are never revealed as to what the event that left world in such a position was, but there are glimpses in flashback of the man’s former life with his wife (played by Charlize Theron) around the time when the apocalypse began. The novel’s bleakness is well transferred to the screen and there are several chilling sequences, notably the stand-off with a member of a cannibal gang that hunts them down, and the discovery of a basement in a house which is holding live, dismembered humans. As the duo travel towards the South Coast in the hope of finding a different life, their humanity is tested. All the good left in man can be seen shining through the boy, who wants to help fellow travelers in worse situations than them, while his father is suspicious of everyone and protective of his son. The man maintains the struggle but the boy holds onto the faith of humanity, the ethics. They distinguish themselves from their enemies by assuring themselves they are the ‘good guys’. The individuals they encounter include an elderly man, their most human companion, and an African American man that steals their belongings and is forced to strip naked, and left seemingly to die. As the man slowly creeps closer to death, he seeks to educate the boy on how to survive in this world, with the boy representative of the hope of the human race. This is a very strong theme in the novel, but isn’t overtly examined in the film, only referenced. There is a passage that describes the boy as ‘glowing’ as if God was shining through him. This scene was not in the film, but the theme is still somewhat developed. 

The cinematography is absolutely stunning and the depiction of the world is unlike any other I have witnessed. The most beautiful sequences are those where the man and the boy are just walking in silence through streets full of overturned cars and dislodged telephone poles. Smoldering ruins line the streets, there is smoke billowing on the horizon, and ash fills the air. It presents such a great atmosphere. Viggo’s performance is fantastic as usual. He obviously put a lot of work into his appearance; with the facial hair and the weight loss. Kodi Smit-McPhee is also very impressive. Nick Cave’s score is haunting, and of course Hillcoat must be praised for his vision of the film.

Visually, it is perfect, but the key weakness of the film is the adapted script. A few unsettling moments in the novel were removed from the film, which was disappointing, and while the novel reads as being quite episodic, it was very apparent in the film, which did not make for strong narrative flow. It was relying too much on the visuals to tell the tale and the limited dialogue between the characters seemed somewhat direct and awkward. Many of the key themes; notably maintaining humanity in a world where straying from this is essential to survival, are left underdeveloped. The conclusion was also quite rushed, and while we see hope for the future, the horrors of this world seemed to be beaten and forgotten, which didn’t seem realistic. While the novel is fairly concise, I saw this as a sprawling epic of a film, a short period of existence, but drawn out as though their journey represented an enormous struggle. Overall I was very satisfied, being a fan of the novel. It’s a shame it wasn’t considered for more awards, but I guess, overall it is lacking the plot depth resonating through the novel. Though visually, it is outstanding, and it creates some genuine suspense. 

My Rating: 4 Stars

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