The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)
It has been a long time since I’ve read The Road—I got an ARC of it from a pal of mine at CNN before its release and read it immediately—so when I finally sat down to watch the movie, my memories of the book were hazy at best. I know relying on my memory of a book I read eight years ago is probably not the best thing in the world to do when comparing a film adaptation to it, but I remember, for what that’s worth, the book not being anywhere near as unfocused and episodic as the movie.
Then Robert Duvall gave that brilliant monologue*, and I no longer cared.
Plot: the world has effectively ended. (While the film, true to the book, never reveals the exact cause of the end of humanity, both the book’s descriptions and the movie’s subdued lighting will call to mind the vivid descriptions of nuclear winter anyone of a certain age was fed.) Two characters we know only as Man (The Prophecy‘s Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Let Me In‘s Kodi Smit-McPhee) are wandering the post-apocalyptic landscape along the titular road. They may have a goal; they may not. (I have always assumed they were going to some legendary “safe zone”, but that is probably me projecting onto this from a hundred unrelated zombie movies.) They do their best to avoid the roving bands of cannibals; food is scarce, so human beings have turned to eating one another when they cannot find anything else. Man tells us, in a voiceover, that he fears only two things: cannibals and hunger. You find out why soon enough. The present-day pieces are interspersed with dreams, memories, and reflections Man has of the pre-apocalypse days, with his wife (Monster‘s Charlize Theron) and, when they stumble upon Man’s childhood home, of things even before that. They discover a few more friendly fellow travelers along the way, but this is the only escape from the drudgery of their daily lives.
Mortensen and Smit-McPhee are both top-tier actors, and the two of them should be enough to carry this symbolism-laden film, especially when paired with John Hillcoat (The Proposition), who was the perfect director to take on this source material. And yet still, what stood out to me were the cameos. A number of very well-known actors show up here in minor parts; I’ve already mentioned Duvall, and then there are Guy Pearce and Molly Parker as a married couple, Michael Kenneth Williams, Garret Dillahunt… each graces the screen for less than five minutes (Theron doesn’t have much more than that), and each shines. Williams is a perfect archetype of the desperation of those survivors who have not joined one of the cannibal gangs in a way that Mortensen never is, though by all rights he should be. Pearce delivers the one-liner that is the moral to the entire story and still manages to pass it off in such a way that you might miss it if you blink. (I was reminded, favorably, of the immortal final shot of Dellamorte Dell’Amore.) Because of this, I ended up having to conclude that neither of our main characters is pulling much of the weight in this movie. I am now very happy I didn’t end up seeing it until after Let Me In and ParaNorman had already made me a rabid Smit-McPhee fan.
Now having said all that, I know I’m harping on the negative aspects of a movie that I’m giving a rating of “you really should see this” and considering adding to the thousand-best list. I don’t mean to. Blame it on the movie’s relentlessly bleak atmosphere, which I rush to add is perfectly appropriate for the material. And it’s obvious from the film’s reception, both critical (75% at Rotten Tomatoes) and popular (68% RT, 7.3 at IMDB), that its general plotlessness didn’t hamstring it, the way that sort of thing does with so many movies. (I ascribe the credit, or blame, for this solely to Hillcoat, whose mastery of celluloid shows new aspects with every movie he releases.) The movie does take a while to get up to speed, and it is intentionally (I assume) confusing/disorienting for a bit. Also, you have to pay attention to it or you’ll miss some of the more important bits, none of which I can tell you without major spoilers. Trust me, it’s worth paying the extra attention when one of them rolls around. Hillcoat takes a lot of time setting up most of his characters, even the minor ones, which make the movie feel slow. Don’t let that deter you; this is one you will find yourself mulling over long after the final frame has passed your eyes. *** ½
* According to IMDB’s trivia section, Duvall’s monologue is at least partly extemporaneous; when I read this, that little “I KNEW it!” light clicked in my head. It feels a little off with the rest of the script, and ends up marking the movie’s turning point. It may be complete coincidence that it falls where it does, though I suspect once they realized the gold they had, some editorial prowess was put to use subtly emphasizing the importance of that monologue. In any case, if you don’t watch the movie for any other reason, watch it for this scene; it is the post-apocalyptic equivalent of Michael Fassbender’s riveting monologue in Hunger.