Film review by: Witney Seibold
I made the mistake of reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road before seeing John Hillcoat’s film version of it. McCarthy is a master of prose, managing to including great details and emotions in brief, almost scattershot passages of half grunted thoughts. What a film does is make explicit things that were more powerful when implicit. So I was focusing on how literal the film was, rather than adaptive. I had the same problem with “Watchmen” earlier this year.
If, however, you have not read the book, you will find a remarkable film of stirring power and unabated atmosphere. In the future, something has happened to the world. We don’t know what. All we know is that all the animals are dead. All the plats are dying. Trees crash around us without warning. The few human survivors are greasy and dirty and spend their time scavenging for food. Many have taken to cannibalism.
Wandering this landscape is a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (the unfortunately named Kodi Smit-McPhee). Their plan is to walk south until they reach the ocean. Surely there will be life there. They carry what meager belongings they have in a shopping cart, and have two bullets left in their gun, should they be captured by cannibals, and be forced to kill themselves.
They have memories of mom (Charlize Theron in flashbacks), but they don’t talk about her too much. What’s the point?
There is no color in this world. Everything is a shade of brown or grey. No one is clean. No one smiles. Everyone is skeletally thin.
Most end-of-the-world films deal with some sense of renewal, or, failing that, am outright rebirth. Think of the comparatively crass “I am Legend.” “The Road” intelligently and refreshingly dispenses with all pretenses of melodrama, and goes for, what I feel, is a much more realistic approach. People would not discuss the state of the world, were it actually ending. There would be no weepy moments of nostalgia. There would just be the harsh, bitter survivalist reality, and the tears come from much more immediate pains, like having to shoot a loved one, or starving slowly to death.
But, and here’s the sneaky thing: Hillcoat manages to work in some morals after all. Mortensen talks about “carrying the fire” and the son is constantly asking if they are “good guys.” While this may sound like biblical language, the film is mercifully free of preaching or proselytizing. In a world where all the churches have fallen, and the human race is facing extinction, this vague altruism can sound more real and more practicable than any establish moral system.
But now I’m making the film sound like an essay on ethics. Do not mistake me. “The Road” is a hard-to-watch, painful, depressing, and very good film.
One more thing: This film is shot in color, but there is almost no color in this post-apocalyptic world. I have noticed this trend in many recent films (“Sweeney Todd,” springs to mind). They will be shot in color, but will go to great lengths to show how colorless the world is. I wonder if Hollywood will ever cut out the middleman, and simply move back to black and white film.