Man, where do we start here?
Let's quell your fears if you had any. The trailer for John Hillcoat's "The Road", released a few months ago, worried many, including us, not only because it contained pixelated and clipped devastation newsreel footage — nowhere to be found in the original and beloved Cormac McCarthy book — but it seemed to try and sell an entirely different film: a post-apocalyptic action/thriller the same way Miramax tried to sell their arty and meditative post-apocalyptic film, "Blindness." And in a way it's understandable, as studios always have to try and net the most flies. Esquire called it perhaps, "the most important film of the year," in May and while that remains somewhat to be seen (it's not an outlandish statement that's for sure), the writer's depiction and thoughts on the film were very much on-the-mark.
So two things you need to know. 1) They didn't fuck up the book in the least. It's a very faithful adaptation. And 2) none of that doomsday pre-apocalypse devastation footage is in the film (ardent constituents of the novel were adamant that the film, like the book, had to show zero back story to the unknown havoc that wreaked the Earth, so they'll be about 95% happy).
The film does get off to a somewhat clunky start and there is an opening hint of an explanation that rings false, but it's not a major detractor in the end. While some concessions are apparent in the adaptation, an expository voice-over from Viggo Mortensen (which thankfully disappears after the first twenty minutes) and some questionable flashbacks to the wife character (Charlize Theron), the picture is largely what it should be: a bleak and grim, yet ultimately beautiful story about the undying love between a boy and his father trying to survive the most despondent of situations. It's possible some will go full on for this premise and others could find it hokey. While there are some traces of the latter, the connection between the two characters (and actors) is generally genuine, sometimes brutal and truthful. We also submit Hillcoat's previous work as an example of a director who knows not to go overboard.
Stark, austere and perhaps even monomaniacal in its relentless scorched-earth hopelessness, the picture is also heart wrenching, haunting and elegiac, but we must admit we found it to be immersive and riveting for the entire two hours. It feels like Hillcoat almost pains himself to stay true to McCormac's vision. And in many ways that makes "The Road" a hard film to watch, but that's the point. It's not necessarily enjoyable, but it is as visceral an experience and gut wrenching as it should be.
It's going to be a hard sell, but let's praise the mighty movie gods out there that artistry prevailed, and give Bob Weinstein a pat on the back for letting this one through unscathed and (mostly) uncompromised — when a father is pointing a gun at a little boy, sobbing and apologizing for the unspeakable crime he believes he has to commit while the little boy protests helplessly, you know they're not trying to sanitize the brutal moments therein (you'll realize it was the right decision in the end Bob, don't fuss).
Dreary, yet gripping and fully engaging, "The Road" is the story of an unnamed father and son (Mortensen and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) who travel the barren, wretched and ashen gray landscape of America in hopes of reaching the West Coast, where they hope to find some form of salvation. Starving, emaciated and living in an utterly hostile and dilapidated world, filled with hordes of cannibals, inclimate weather and zero food, the duo try their best just to simply survive.
What's left of civilization has been pilfered and pillaged, so what exists are scraps of nourishment and collecting trash to make for shelters and clothing. It's bleak and the aesthetics are somber and unpromising. Respite — and emotional context — is given in the form of dreaming flashbacks, Mortensen's visually gloomy palette is transported to memories of a (sometimes) brighter time when he and his wife (Theron) lived in pastoral happiness. Some might find these flashbacks too much of a contrast and occasionally one feels jarring, but they themselves become more and more depressing as we soon find out why the wife is no longer with the father and child.
Vacillating in tone somewhere between, "The Proposition" and "The Assassination of Jesse James," the key difference is the emotional content. Essentially a love story about father and son — and at times a very severe and painful one — as the film progresses, it becomes more and more heartrending.
Truth be told, the end of the picture emotionally slayed us and we felt like our heart had been practically ripped out of its ribcage. If there were treacly and emotionally manipulative moments, they honestly felt too intense to notice. It's hard sometimes to not get caught up in it, but there admittedly might be some who feel it somewhat aimless. Essentially, if you don't buy the two performances you might be left out in the cold.
Issues may arise for some as there isn't much of a forward-propelling narrative, but this will probably be lesser for those that have been acclimated to the book. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is wonderful and yet, not as powerful or gorgeously doleful as recent scores ('Assassination,' 'Proposition'; though the ending cues are rather angelically mournful. There are many cameos, Michael K. Williams plays a thief who tries to make off with their food, an almost unrecognizable Robert Duvall plays a decrepit man on the road they sympathetically feed, but thankfully none of them come across as superstar appearances (and really some of them look so fucked up and ugly — Guy Pearce for one — that it's challenging to think of anyone who would accuse the picture of trying to create buzz with big names). It's essentially a two-hander, all about Mortensen and Smit-McPhee. They carry and shoulder the burden.
This photo sort of sums it all up. "The Road" is a tear-stained face cleaning off layers of dirty soot, but in all the harrowing misery, there's a deep-seated belief in the human spirit which is what McCarthy's book ultimately zeros in on. One of our biggest issues with disconsolate films (cough, "Frozen River") is the remorseless, increasing conflicts that pile-on a character to the point of overkill, but maybe all those months in the tweaking, gestation period (it was originally due in the Fall of 2008, but really wasn't ready or fine tuned yet) helped out, as the pacing and tenor seemed incredibly well calibrated and conceived.
"The Road" is not entirely perfect, but in the end, the harrowing and devastating qualities of the picture might ravage you enough to overlook any faults, but those "faults" are obviously very subjective. [A-].
Oscar talk? Hmm, it might be overstated. Kodi Smit-McPhee who was said to be a frontrunner for Best Supporting actor is good, but Mortensen carries the weight of the film on his shoulders and if anyone should get a nomination its him. Best Picture? Probably far too dark as hell for the populist Academy with populist new rules. Still, that doesn't mean it might eek out some other nominations, but other than Viggo none seem outwardly apparent (though there is some rather superbly ravaged cinematography and art direction, but too severe to notice?).
Man, where do we start here?