Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Road

The Road is a movie that makes you think about other post-apocalyptic dramas and say to yourself, "You know, those other movies really seem lighthearted now."  It is one of the few movies that makes me consider Children of Men as a laugh riot.  In case you're having trouble judging my tone, I'll spell it out for you: DEPRESSING.

This shouldn't come as a surprise, considering the people involved with this movie.  The director, John Hillcoat, has done bleak in the past.  Viggo Mortensen doesn't usually take roles in romantic comedies (unless you count the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).  The movie is adapted from the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, author of No Country For Old Men, someone whose subject matter doesn't really lend itself to frivolity.

This is the story of a nameless man and son as they make their way across the remains of the United States, toward the sea.  Something has happened in the recent past (within the lifespan of the boy) that has ruined the world.  It is a dark, dirty, ashen post-apocalypse.  Crops have failed and animals are dead.  The only nourishment the father and son can find are occasional bugs or, if they're extremely luck, canned goods.  Ammunition is at a premium; the father has a revolver with two bullets, one for him and one for the boy.  Some people have resorted to cannibalism and scour the land in gangs.  Obviously, this tends to make the father suspicious of strangers.  Despite this logical animosity toward others, the two meet occasional strangers, including Robert Duvall and Michael K. Williams (best known for his awesome work as Omar in The Wire series).  Sometimes, they encounter a habitable house; sometimes, those houses are being used by cannibals to store their "cattle."  As they make their way cross country, the father begins coughing blood and knows his time will soon be up.

Sounds like fun, eh?  I have to say that I did not enjoy this film.  I also should point out that enjoyment was definitely not the goal here.  This film takes the Hollywood cliche of the post-apocalypse and makes it downright horrifying.  I am Legend was lonely, but had some cool moments (Oh, don't want to hunt deer in NYC?  Liar!).  Mad Max had dozens of colorful characters.  28 Days Later had excitement and some little moments of joy sprinkled throughout.  The Road has survivors that have made it this far because they are stubborn.  They have no hope.  They have no friends.  The keep going because they don't want to stop.  Watching this is something of an endurance test, too.  Sometimes, a movie will take on a difficult, depressing subject, and the tone just doesn't match the subject matter.  That is not the case here.  The post-apocalypse will suck, and this film knows it.

This is a dark movie, and the cinematography matches the tone.  The lighting is dim (because it's permanently cloudy) and the camera takes in sweeping panoramas of dead wasteland.  If you're going to watch this, do it in the dark.  Everything looks painfully authentic here, including the actors.  Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee (the son) both lost a lot of weight to appear this malnourished.  This might lose its impact as the film progressed, if it wasn't for the occasional flashback to the pre-apocalypse, which was full of color, electricity, a healthy Viggo and his late wife, played by Charlize Theron.  Those brief moments serve as a visual reminder of just how horrible the world the father and son occupy really is.

The acting here is top notch.  Viggo Mortensen does his best work when he doesn't have to speak much, and this is not a wordy movie.  He plays a tired, scared man that will go to any length to keep his son alive, and he looks like a man that has spent years living like that.  Kodi Smit-McPhee does a good job as the son, clearly living scared, but still trying to understand his father and others.  This movie avoids melodramatic father-son moments, but there are still a few touching scenes toward the end.  These two are on screen for almost the entire movie; the supporting cast is lucky to share the screen for more than two minutes.  Charlize Theron's character could have been glossed over to represent how great the past was, but she is shown as a woman, wife, mother and person in her few scenes.  She is sometimes happy, other times not.  It's a surprisingly varied role, given the limited screen time, and Theron does it justice.  Robert Duvall delivers an unsurprisingly great performance as an elderly survivor that looks like he is 300 years old.  Michael K. Williams and Guy Pearce both make the best of their bit parts, minute as they are.  There is no bad acting in this entire movie.

From a technical point of view, John Hillcoat did a fantastic job bringing this story to life.  The acting is very good, the cinematography is very good, the tone of the movie is very appropriate, and I think the film accomplished everything it set out to do.  And yet, I don't think I want to watch this movie again in the near future.  While I appreciate a lot of things here, I just can't get past how exhausting this movie is.  And I'm not sure you're supposed to.

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