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Do Not Detour from The Road

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageViggo Mortenson and his young co-star amaze in the latest successful adaptation of a novel by Cormac McCarthy.

I would hesitate to recommend The Road as travel reading material.  This tale of a father and son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world isn't something one would want to read on a sunny beach or while indulging at a spa and the like.  Yet I bought and packed the novel in my carry-on last summer just before going on vacation.  I started it while waiting in the terminal for my departing flight.  One plane ride and layover later and I had finished it before boarding the connecting flight to my destination. 

Not surprisingly, the story of The Road haunted me for the duration of my vacation, which while still enjoyable, was decidedly less so due to my choice of reading material.

A general sense of despair with notes of terror and revulsion suffuses the novel like the aroma from a kitchen in hell, which accounts for much of the speculation regarding the appeal of a movie adaptation.  Would Hollywood executives shy away from the novel's darker moments, of which there are many?  Would there be a push for a lighter, happier ending?  We know what the Coen brothers were able to do with No Country For Old Men, but they're the freakin' Coen brothers.  How would relative unknowns Joe Penhall (writer), John Hillcoat (director), and Javier Aguirresarobe (cinematographer) do with The Road?

I'm pleased to say that for fans of the novel, the film is a near pitch-perfect and very faithful adaptation.  Much like the novel, the film can be viewed and analyzed on multiple levels.  I don't feel qualified to go into detail on all of them, but I would like to look at two of those "levels," and discuss in particular how the film succeeds on each of them.

The first is simply that The Road can be viewed as a post-apocalyptic, end-of-the-world-type narrative.  Now, if you want to indulge in disaster porn full of an asinine plot, rote acting, and flashy, expensive digital effects, go see 2012.  You'll mess your pants and feel guilty about if afterward.  But if you really want to watch a film about what a civilization-ending, post-catastrophe world might be like, see The Road.  Whereas I'm sure you can pick out each and every CGI-filled scene in 2012, the cinematography of The Road is haunting and scary-realistic.  The film opens with quiet scenes of natural beauty: trees full of green leaves, flowers displaying pinks and oranges of full bloom, bright sunshine.  Charlize Theron enters this scene in a light, flowing summer dress, her physical beauty matching that of Mother Nature.  We then abruptly transition to a haggard and drawn Viggo Mortenson, violently awakening from a dream.  Awakening to the world as it exists in the present of The Road: ashen and cold, a near lifeless wasteland.

Little to none of The Road appears to have been shot on a sound stage or in front of green screens.  I've read it was filmed in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Oregon, and while it's obvious some special effects have been incorporated, the idea that much of what you see onscreen is as places in today's world really appear makes the film even more depressing.  Yet that depression serves the film well.  There is something about what I'm calling disaster porn, something lacking in films such as 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, or Armageddon.  These are films dealing with the threat of an extinction event, films that by and large include the deaths of a significant portion of humanity.  There should be something a little horrifying about that prospect, and yet that is a reaction that none of these films instill in viewers.  Likely this is due to a combination of flashy (and obviously fake) CGI and unrealistic scenarios (we enter a new Ice Age in 48 hours?  the world rips itself apart in mere hours just because?) or a focus on save-the-world heroics that win out in the end.  For the films that lack this last element (TDAT & 2012) the focus is placed on the event, and not the aftermath.

At one point in The Road Viggo's son (played by newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) asks if they are going to die, to which Viggo responds, "You think we're just going to keel over and die?  It takes a long time. . .to die of starvation."

So too, I would expect, does the end of the world.  Minor Spoiler Warning: as in the novel, the catastrophe is not shown in The Road, nor is it ever fully revealed or mentioned.  The point is that it doesn't really matter what happened, the reality is that we Homo sapiens are not so different from Periplaneta americana.  True, much of the world's population has died, but there are survivors, people are still struggling to stay alive, and while it may be a lost cause, simply fighting for self-preservation, and holding on to your humanity in the process, may be enough.  The fire might ultimately get extinguished, but you have to carry it with you as long as you can.

On another level, The Road is about the relationship and the bond between a father and son, and by extension, all fathers and sons.  Again, this film stands apart from others on this subject, specifically I'm thinking about Clive Owen's recently released The Boys Are Back.  I haven't seen it, but based on reviews it seems this movie misses the mark, and the point, of what it means to be a father.  Largely due to McCarthy's excellent prose The Road is spot-on.  You never learn the names of Viggo or Smit-McPhee's characters.  In the novel (and in the credits) they are simply referred to as The Man and The Boy, and their Everyman quality communicates the fable-like nature of The Road.  They consume >90% or so of the film's screen time.  There are a couple of ancillary characters that come and just as quickly go, but it falls to Viggo and his young co-star to carry the film, and ultimately its success or failure depends on them. 

Thankfully, they both deliver outstanding, gut-wrenching performances.  I won't go into specifics, but if you have read the novel you are aware of several key scenes between The Man and The Boy.  These are scenes I was highly anticipating, wondering how they would play out with flesh and blood actors, and I was not disappointed.  Viggo has proven himself time and again (and here gives the best performance I've personally ever seen), so I was more curious about who would be playing The Boy.  Smit-McPhee matches Viggo in emotion and intensity, and while the film is largely told from the father's perspective, when the focus shifts to The Boy Smit-McPhee really shines.  I wouldn't be surprised if he joins the elite group of child actors nominated for an Oscar.

The Road is not an easy film to watch, but then, the novel it adapts is not an easy one to read.  But like the novel, the film is more than worthwhile.