Movie: The Road * * * * *
(16, GENERAL RELEASE)
After the huge success and critical acclaim of the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men in 2007, the pressure was always going to be on the next filmmaker to have a crack at a Cormac McCarthy novel.
After the huge success and critical acclaim of the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men in 2007, the pressure was always going to be on the next filmmaker to have a crack at a Cormac McCarthy novel. And it didn't help that the story producer Nick Wechsler and director John Hillcoat chose to adapt was The Road, an impossibly bleak near-masterpiece set in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. The result was eagerly anticipated, but when the film's release was delayed by almost a year, pessimists began to fear the worst. There were rumours of extensive cutting, re-writes, and general studio unease.
If I were a major studio releasing this little number around the Christmas period I might be a bit uneasy too, for it's unlikely to attract hordes of glassy-eyed popcorn munchers (they'll be at Avatar). But its commercial potential has nothing to do with its quality, for this is a remarkable, unflinching and austerly handsome film that does rich justice to the themes and rhythms of McCarthy's novel -- which, as anyone who is read it will realise, is really saying something.
Viggo Mortensen, in the best sense, is the opposite of a movie star: he disappears completely into parts instead of attracting attention to how he does it, and is the perfect choice to play a man in the midst of a never-ending nightmare. He is the unnamed father of a 10 or 11-year-old boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), with whom he wanders across the devastated landscape of America's eastern seaboard in the aftermath of a terrible global cataclysm.
In McCarthy's book and this film the nature of that cataclysm is never specified. It could be nuclear, it might be environmental, but whatever it was it has left mankind in a pretty pickle. And as man and boy plough south along a desolated highway, they pass through a landscape choked by ash, starved of sunlight and bereft of life and nature.
The seas are empty, the skies birdless, the trees and bushes petrified. In fact, all that have survived are sporadic pockets of humanity, which the father divides for his son's benefit into the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys'. The bad guys turn out to be gangs of marauding men who rape and eat anything they come across; the good guys are those like themselves who continue to scavenge for non-human food and search for elusive communes where some semblance of sanity and human culture may have survived.
The pair's vague objective is to work their way south, away from the oncoming winter and towards the distant sea. To get there they must cross dead forests and high mountains, wheeling a tired supermarket trolley containing all their worldly goods.
They search for food in abandoned houses, the corpses of their owners often rotting under blankets upstairs. But there is always the dread of meeting one of the gangs, and the father keeps a loaded pistol on his belt with two bullets in it, one each for him and his son.
What Cormac McCarthy did in The Road was examine how human beings survive in the complete absence of hope, and he achieved this by imagining every parent's worst nightmare: caring for a child in a world where fairy tales and reassuring platitudes are no longer possible. John Hillcoat's excellent film does not flinch from a similar task, and some of the scenes between Mortensen and Smit-McPhee are heartbreaking. In Hillcoat's film, civilisation becomes the half-forgotten fairy story, and Mortensen magnificently portrays a father trying to keep his child's hopes alive when he has none left for himself.
In flashbacks, Charlize Theron appears as his wife in glimpses of what looked a happy, cosy life, but that, of course, only makes the bitter present ever harder to swallow.
This is humanity laid bare, and the film's implications are truly horrifying. But The Road is also a moving and strangely beautiful film, and Hillcoat and co have managed to perfectly convey the austere grandeur of McCarthy's magnificent novel.