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Editor’s Note: The Road was viewed at a festival screening and was not yet released at the time of this review.
The Man says to The Boy, “I will kill anyone who touches you. Because that’s my job.” And so begins the movie titled, The Road, based on Comac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2006 novel of the same name. In the movie, The Man is played by Viggo Mortensen (A History of Violence, 2005) and The Boy is played by Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee (Romulus, My Father, 2007). Charlize Theron (North Country, 2005) plays The Wife.
The Road tells the story of a father and son’s travels through a post-apocalyptic America that is sparse with vegetation and human life. The two are traveling south for the benefit of a warmer climate and the distant hope of locating some sort of established civilized society for refuge – though the existence of such a society is a guess at best. Highways consist of worn, cracked blacktop littered with dust coated automobiles. Buildings and towns are vacant. Forests are filled with barren trees that creak and snap behind the force of the wind. Random fires burn, sending pillowing clouds of heavy gray smoke into an already charcoal colored sky. Earthquakes and constant aftershocks echo. There is no sound of birds chirping. There is no buzzing of bees. And among those persons still living, or perhaps those persons merely waiting to die, exist certain human factions that The Boy refers to as “bad people.”
“There has been cannibalism,” The Man says in an ominous tone, via narration, at the top of the film. “Cannibalism is the great fear.” And the sole gun the two weary travelers tote contains just two bullets with a general purpose for protection and a specific purpose for each in taking their own lives. The emphasis on this is illustrated when the two stop near a snow covered cornfield, before searching for provisions in a ramshackled barn. The Man explains to The Boy the proper placement of the gun in his mouth if and when such a time should occur.
Director John Hillcoat (The Proposition, 2005) introduces moviegoers to a world where hope may be less faint than a whisper, but nonetheless does exist in the hearts of The Man and The Boy. The Boy refers to this as “carrying the fire.” A further example is in The Man’s narration at the beginning of the film. He says of his son: “If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”
The film is shot from the point-of-view of The Man and The Boy, so the viewer only knows what the father and son know. Much is left up to the viewer’s imagination. And that can be a good thing when illustrating a film about a topic, since it has never actually happened to modern-mankind before, which requires such imagining. For example, the apocalyptic event is not explained. Was it nuclear fallout resulting from war? A meteor? Did the Earth’s plates shift causing mass volcanic eruptions which blotted out the Sun? None are answered.
The viewer must mainly live in the “now” with The Man and The Boy. Their focus is survival, and so must be the viewer’s. This forces a consistent level of tension and intensity throughout the film because anything can happen at anytime. The two face perils of man vs. man and man vs. nature as they make their way southeast to the coast. During one scene, while the two are fleeing from a suspected cannibal faction of “bad people,” an earthquake occurs that results in trees as tall as buildings toppling to the forest floor. The Man covers his son for protection as the trees become unearthed and crash to the ground.
But beneath the horrors of survival in a world left in shambles, exists the simple story of a father and son. They share moments of joy and sadness, making their bond stronger with each passing moment. For example, in scavenging an abandoned factory The Man happens upon an unopened can of soda. He gives it to his son, who has clearly never tasted such a sugary carbonated beverage. The Boy burps after taking a sip and the two share a smile. Then The Boy insists his father, whom he calls “Poppa” throughout the film, also enjoy some of the soda. At times, The Boy doesn’t understand his Poppa’s skepticism in trusting people and becomes frustrated. The Boy wants to help people he thinks are good, while The Man’s only concern is his son’s safety. Not so far fetched from the plain many father and son relationships exist on.
The past is only revealed via flashback through the eyes of The Man during dreams or daydreams. And this is how viewers learn of The Man’s wife (Thereon) and the birth of his son. The birth of The Boy takes place in the post-apocalyptic world. Thereon’s character is petrified with fear when her water breaks, due her uncertainty of what hope a new life has in a dying world. Although Thereon does not have much screen time in the film, she delivers a powerful enough performance that enables her character to be missed. And because the flashbacks are peppered throughout the film, the viewer is given a continuous but subtle reminder that The Man in still in anguish about the loss of his wife – as well The Boy. Actors Robert Duvall (Open Ranger, 2003) and Guy Pearce (Factory Girl, 2006) also appear in minor roles in the film.
Mortensen delivers a stellar performance too. In particular — and with regard to The Man’s longing for his absent wife — there is a scene where The Man comes across a piano in an abandoned rural home and recalls playing the piano, in the pre-apocalyptic world, with his wife. The Man breaks down in tears and falls to his knees as he tinkers with the keys of the slightly out of tune piano, and then tells his son how good his mom was at playing the piano.
Smit-McPhee, who does not have many roles to his credit thus far, does a very good job in the role of The Boy and holds his own with Academy Award nominee Mortensen. The two are basically in every scene in the movie and are very believable as a father and son. Smit-McPhee also shared screen time with fellow Aussie actor Eric Bana in another father/son role for 2007’s Romulus, My Father.
The Road is the type of movie that ends with the viewer wanting more. Following the advanced screening in New York City on October 20, 2009, reviewers and critics alike remained seated for nearly 30 seconds into the closing credits in silence. The movie leaves many questions unanswered and just as many pop up as the story is told. And in this film reviewer’s opinion, that can be a good thing. Many times movies are put on automatic pilot and the viewer is just taken along for the ride. An intelligent film sparks and ignites individual imagination, which can make a film more personal for a moviegoer. So for a film that will prompt thought and curiosity, while telling an interesting story of survival and the relationship between a father and son, consider The Road.
Chris Wood Chris Wood
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