I had heard the name Cormac McCarthy long before his novel, The Road had been turned into a film, and even before the Coen brothers turned his novel No Country For Old Men into a successful film that titillated movie-goers with Javier Bardem as a hitman like no other hitman. I knew going in that The Road was going to be dark, rustic and bleak – a close collaboration between director John Hillcoat (The Proposition – 2005) and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Sea Inside 2004), yet I was drawn to the film due in part to Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen is the kind of actor that makes you believe his characters regardless of the era or genre – who could forget his role as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings franchise? Part of me had convinced myself that the novel based script might take us down a different path, impart us with a new yet no less dour, post-apocalyptic story. But that’s not the case. These characters are familiar, rag-torn and desperate to survive, hungry and violent and not very extraordinary at all. The story of a father and son traversing inclement weather and poisonous air is all too familiar. I couldn’t help but draw similarities to The Road Warrior, the Mel Gibson film before Gibson became a Hollywood pariah. And more recently M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening – which just fell flat in a world I could no more connect with as imagine or care about. I mean if I were baking a cake and the recipe called for proportionate amounts of John Leguizamo, Mark Wahlberg, and Zooey Deschanel – well, lets just say The Happening was another concept over character film without much thought beyond the tag line. Now that’s not to say that these actors have not had their fair share of successes, Leguizamo’s stand-up routines and roles in movies like Spike Lee joint Summer of Sam are memorable to say the least, and Wahlberg as Dick Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Boogie Nights is perhaps his best film to date, and Deschanel’s duo She and Him might actually stick around for a while. Yet, The Road, entrenched in dead world minimalism and hopelessness, comes across like any number of end-of-the-world doom and gloom movies – movies like 2012, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, and The Book Of Eli come to mind. For me, blackened skies and dung colored seas are not enough any more than special FX laden blockbusters can survive without a solid story and strong characters. Who are these characters, this father and son? Are they supposed to be us, the last hope of a doomed race of people on a scorched planet? Sure, these films can and do make money which is precisely why the genre remains alive and well. We pay, they stay. But to say I have had my fill of desolation and the end as we know it in cinema is to say I’ve been forever scarred with the indifference of shabby stories told badly and characters with about as much depth as has-been athletes in breakfast cereal endorsements.
The Road has been described as “unyielding for some, but the film benefits from hauntingly powerful performances from Viggo Mortensen and Kodi McPhee” by the folks over at www.rottentomatoes.com. I’d suggest they missed mentioning Robert Duvall as the Old Man character, a performance you will not soon forget as he steals nearly every scene he is in. I’m reminded of the father character he portrayed in Billy Bob Thornton‘s film, Sling Blade; a scarred man lost in delusions of former times, so complete the transformation from the brass balls of Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now that you might not even recognize him. To simply say that Duvall is striking is hardly enough to applaud perhaps his strongest and most challenging role to date.
The Road IS a downer. You’ll find cannibalism and abandonment, the best and worst from people not all that different from us. There are moments of genuine emotional connections between the characters that are at once heartbreaking and then nothing at all. If you revel in desolation, death, and destruction you’ll find something to enjoy in this film. It’s not for everyone and as much as I liked bits and pieces I had a difficult time with the ending. I know McCarthy’s novel The Road was the winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. I know the actors are top-notch and hope is a personal emotion much the way faith lives differently but collectively in our society. But what drives us and keeps us from our own personal roads is the very thing lacking in this movie – namely renewal that isn’t harnessed in the death and destructive of all that we know.