(2009)4Jason BuchananDon't be fooled by the apocalyptic infernos, decimated landscapes, and roving bands of gaunt, hallow-eyed cannibals; while director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's bleak best-seller The Road is without question one of the most grim and nightmarish survival stories ever conjured up on film, it also happens to be one of the most optimistic and hopeful. Nevertheless, there's plenty of darkness surrounding that faint flicker of humanity -- almost enough to swallow it up entirely.
The world, as we know it, is dead. How it happened isn't important; the only thing that matters now is survival. Into this dying world comes a child (Kodi Smit-McPhee). His mother (Charlize Theron) is gone, but his father (Viggo Mortensen) remains to guide him. Their destination: the sea. Neither father nor son is entirely sure of what they'll find when they reach the coast; all they know is that it can't be any worse than the wasteland that leads to it. As humanity breathes its last gasp, the father attempts to protect his son from the most awful threat imaginable. They forge ahead in hope that somewhere out there exists a place where people will come together and start to rebuild the fragile threads that were torn apart in that awful cataclysm that thrust them back into the dark ages. But they're not certain such a place even exists -- or, if it does, that they'll ever make it there alive.
Apocalyptic fables have been around since long before the Cold War; however, it seemed to be the threat of nuclear annihilation, in particular, that really challenged us to take pause and consider the potential consequences of our obstinate appetite for destruction. Thanks to films like Testament, Threads, and The Day After, we were permitted the unique opportunity to live out these nightmare scenarios without having to actually live through them. Much like those films, The Road is genuinely devastating, and much like the filmmakers who made them, McCarthy, Hillcoat, and Penhall are attempting to deliver a very specific message -- in this case about our ability to resist becoming animals even after the playing field between man and beast has been leveled. That message may not always be a reassuring one, but the artistry with which it's delivered ensures that we're right there with the characters on every step of their arduous journey.
The key to the film's success lies in its use of contrast -- not the contrast between the world as it was and what it's now become, but the contrast between those who would instinctively ravage and consume a fellow human being in the name of survival, and those who refuse to betray the values left over from another time and place. How can we fully appreciate the incredible strength that it would take to maintain our dignity and resist our most primal urges without witnessing the desperation of those who were unable to do so, and the horrible results that followed? By illustrating this point in a series of harrowing scenes and creating an environment where nothing ever feels truly comfortable or safe, Hillcoat and Penhall take us to some pretty dark places, and make every moment believable. This is the antithesis of the Mad Max-style post apocalyptic action-adventure that began permeating screens in the early '80s. In those films, the apocalypse was simply a backdrop for a series of thrilling set pieces; in The Road, it's the oppressive reality that's constantly at the forefront of our thoughts, dictating every desperate move as any hope for a happy ending blows away with the ashes and debris. In this world death is a luxury, and the most loving act a father can commit is killing his own child before the cannibals close in. The scenes in which the father wrestles with making an unthinkable sacrifice raise some fascinating questions about the evolution of relationships in the post-apocalyptic world, and the true nature of unconditional love in extreme circumstances. Those scenes will undoubtedly haunt the soul of any parent for days after viewing the film, and spark some interesting thoughts on just how different our world could be in the blink of an eye. If society collapsed completely, how much of the next generation's morals and values would be based on the standards that existed before the fall? Would they attempt to rebuild what we had? How would the relationship between parent and child, in particular, be affected as the elder generation attempted to teach their young descendants how to "keep the fire"?
Throughout the film, the boy keeps asking his father if they're "still the good guys." He instinctively realizes that the things happening all around him are wrong, even if he never had the privilege of living in the comfortable world his father once knew. We spend the vast majority of the film with these two figures alone, and for that reason it's crucial that they are convincing. Cadaverous and malnourished, Mortensen is survival personified as he soldiers on in search of hope and tries to comfort his terrified son. And while it's impossible to determine how a child of this awful new world would speak or behave, young Smit-McPhee displays a mixture of apprehension and curiosity that comes off as heartbreakingly genuine. The fact that he bears a striking resemblance to his onscreen mother (Theron) is just icing on the cake of an unforgettable performance, and Robert Duvall, Garret Dillahunt, Michael K. Williams, and Guy Pearce make distinct impressions even though their roles amount to little more than extended cameos. DP Javier Aguirresarobe's stark cinematography creates a suffocating air of ruin and despair, with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' minimalist score hitting all the right notes in a world where the only music to be heard is the rumbling of the earth and the whistling of the poisonous winds. Few who take this dark journey are ever likely to forget it, but those who walk away believing that the only message here is hopelessness are encouraged to put their cynicism in check and reevaluate their response after the initial shock of it all has worn off. Perhaps then they can begin to see the forest instead of just the charred, barren trees.