Almost since the beginning of man, we as humans have imagined what the end of the world would be like. Often in film it is depicted either as a pandemic like in “Children of Men,” an alien invasion like “Independence Day,” a cybernetic revolt like “The Matrix,” an ecological catastrophe like “The Day After Tomorrow,” biologically altered humans as depicted in “I Am Legend” or because of a man made war like in “Escape From New York.” However, in “The Road,” refreshingly, the reason for the post-apocalyptic setting is never revealed and honestly, it isn’t missed. I never once thought, “What is happening here?” because the main story is so powerful. Rather than focusing on the catastrophe the filmmaker smartly chooses to concentrate on the very human story of a father and son, and their attempt at survival in a barren wasteland. Everything that comes before it takes a back seat to the drama of the main story and it serves the film well, making for powerful and suspenseful cinema.
Based on the book of the same name by “No Country For Old Men” author Cormac McCarthy, the film centers on an unnamed father, the always-impressive Viggo Mortensen, his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and their struggle to survive after an unspecified apocalypse. As they make their way toward the coast searching for food, shelter and safety they encounter several bands of cannibals and other desperate gangs looking to steal valuables and eat the boy. This causes the father and his son to trust no one, even those with good intentions, in order to protect them selves and survive. As the hopeless journey continues across the barren landscapes, with scarce shelter and few resources available to them, the two become closer than ever without forgetting the loved ones they’ve lost. Flashbacks show us events leading up to the catastrophe and Charlize Theron, in another excellent performance, plays the mother and wife to our two heroes who couldn’t make it on the journey. In the end, we realize the father was preparing his son for an inevitable future without him and the hard life that lays ahead for the boy in this strange new world.
This movie works because at the heart of it, it is a father and son story, plain and simple. It works on an emotional level that is very striking. What would you do if the world was ending and there was no food available? Would you eat bugs? Would you eat another person? What would you do and how would you protect your family? What lengths would you go to, to insure safety for you family? These are important social questions yet the film is entertainingly wrapped up in this post-apocalyptic journey film. The cannibals and other rarely seen villains are cleverly used, only appearing at the height of the drama, which gives the audience a very unsettling feeling. We can feel the fear of these people when the gangs appear and it eventually leads you to fear everyone we encounter in the film. Throughout the movie the father tells his son that they are “the good guys” and that’s why they won’t eat people yet you begin to question just what makes someone “a good guy.” Given the circumstance, who wouldn’t do everything in their power to make sure they survive? But where is the line and how do you keep yourself from crossing it? These are some of the questions that the film so beautiful asks and artfully refuses to answer. We are left to make up our own minds about what ultimately happens but I will say that the end is very satisfying and it makes you rethink a lot of what you had seen earlier in the film.
Following his brilliant work in both David Cronenberg’s “A History Of Violence” and “Eastern Promises,” Mortensen gives a performance just as mind-blowing and should earn him a great deal of Oscar-buzz this season. The veteran actor who is also a father himself, clearly had a strong feeling about the character and an emotional connection to the material that shines through in the part. If Mortensen wasn’t already considered one of the best acting movie stars around, then this should seal the deal. Theron is excellent showing a mother’s desperation and conveying the emotions of a woman who cares for her family but has literally given up all hope. But without Smit-McPhee’s performance working off of Mortensen the film wouldn’t work. For such a young actor to pull off that role was impressive. Not only could he carry his own opposite Mortensen but also it is his emotional innocents that are the audience’s window inside of this world. Garret Dillahunt, who has made a name for himself working on some of the best shows on television, gives a very creepy performance as a hillbilly in one scene and Michael K. Williams from “The Wire” is equally impressive in his role. The legendary Robert Duvall also pops up as does Guy Pearce and both actors are a pleasure, as always, to watch.
The film, much like “Children Of Men,” sets the tone perfectly introducing us to this believably bleak future. Director John Hillcoat, who’s last film was the equally astonishing “The Proposition,” does an amazing job creating this dismally bleak world with some stunning camera work and breath taking imagery. Musician Nick Cave, who wrote “The Proposition,” re-teams with Hillcoat, this time composing the music, which helps set the tone of the film and is both haunting and moving. The script, based on the novel, is well written by Joe Penhall and keeps the suspense and drama moving. The pacing at times makes you feel like you’re in a Zombie movie without the Zombies but that just adds to the sense of urgency for these characters. In the end, “The Road” is a touching, moving and heartfelt film about a father preparing his son for the harsh realities of life set to a post-apocalyptic background. The movie transcends all genres and sends a powerful message about family and the human race’s need for survival.