Released 2009. Director: John Hillcoat
SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAS HAPPENED. WE DON’T KNOW WHAT. We don’t know how. The world has been struck with a catastrophe and the majority of the population has perished. It could’ve been a nuclear holocaust, an environmental disaster, or something else. In this desolate landscape, a father and his young son struggle to survive from day to day, two slowly moving shadows swallowed by a land of hunger and silence.
The Road is an unflinching look at an apocalyptic time, a tale of survival and adversity that brings out the best and worst instincts in humans. Filmed on location in the surroundings of Mt St. Helen’s and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the striking imagery of wide-scale devastation truly accentuates the realism of death and destruction. To complement its stark visuals, The Road is also a visceral experience in depicting fear and suspense. Human encounters have become a thing of terror. The relentless push for individual survival has practically wiped out any progress in humanity and taken the survivors back to primitive times. As marauding gangs roam the cold dark world searching for food, the weak are captured, imprisoned and eventually end up as food themselves.
All this time, the father, whose name we never find out, pushes on with his son, teaching the young one how to protect himself. He tells the boy what to do should they ever be captured by other humans who might want to harm them, and how to put the gun in his own mouth and use the only bullet left. In this time of lawlessness, the father remains a paragon of virtue to his son, a hero and protector his son looks to for guidance on what’s right and what’s not. Which makes it shocking when distrust and desperation eventually turns the father into the opposite of all he’s taught his son.
Viggo Mortensen, looking wild and unkempt without the majesty and authority as the king in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, completely inhabits the role of a man on the edge of survival. When the light finally goes out of his eyes, you believe that he’s been holding on for as long as he could to protect his son. Kodi Smit-McPhee’s role is tough for any young actor. He has to go through the bad and the very bad in difficult situations, learning to grapple with trust, kindness and death, life’s big questions through the eyes of a child. Charlize Theron has a small role as the boy’s mother, which helps to flesh out the family portrait as they face the inevitable.
Based on Cormack McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road is compelling and sensitively directed by John Hillcoat. The two principal performances are solid. The script adaptation has a sparse, haunting quality; and the cinematography is at once expansive and intimate. Javier Aguirresarobe’s palette is faultless. His evocative use of light in this overcast, bleak landscape creates a physical world of devastation and an inner world of constant vigilance, hunger, loss and the unbreakable bond between a son and his father. In contrast, brief flashbacks to an earlier time before whatever happened happened are bathed in golden sunlight. Flowers, horses, family, peace, love and tranquility in a few well-chosen shots serve as contrast to the broken, abandoned and dead country that comes after.
The Road is not the kind of movie people rush to but it deserves to be widely seen. Amidst the scenes of desolation and harsh survival, there are moments of strength, intimations of human kindness, and the hope that goodness will prevail.