One for the road

    The cast and crew at a premiere for The Road. Photo by nicogenin on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

    Bottom Line: John Hillcoat’s adaptation of McCarthy’s masterpiece is brilliantly bleak and accurate to the material, but it is Viggo Mortensen who steals the show, giving one of the best performances of the year.
    Grade: A-

    Warning: This review contains spoilers!

    If you’re looking for a cheerful, fun film to watch over the Thanksgiving Break, The Road is not for you.

    Based on the Cormac McCarthy book of the same name, The Road follows a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they trek across the post-apocalyptic world with nothing but the clothes on their back, a shopping cart filled with supplies and their will to survive. We do not know what disaster decimated the world, but its destruction has left the Earth barren, gray and devoid of all warmth and most signs of life. Only a few survivors remain, many of whom have turned to murder, cannibalism and robbery to ensure their survival. The man’s wife (Charlize Theron, whose performance is anchored entirely in flashbacks) is long gone, choosing to commit suicide rather than risk murder at the hands of the desperate, leaving the man in charge of protecting his boy as they travel westward to the coast, hoping to find a warmer climate.

    The novel is a daunting work of literature from which to adapt a movie, to say the least. McCarthy’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was a New York Times Bestseller and even made it onto Oprah’s Book Club list (not to mention one of my all-time favorite books). Furthermore, the last Cormac McCarthy book to be adapted into a motion picture (No Country for Old Men), won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2007. Add these accolades with the fact that the film’s release date was pushed back a year (it was scheduled to be released in Fall 2008), and it’s easy to see why a lot of people doubted the overall quality of the finished product.

    However, director John Hillcoat has done an admirable job of bringing McCarthy’s novel to life, more than proving the skeptics wrong. The environment Hillcoat has created is startlingly dreary – the gray color palette, the bare trees, the decaying houses and the deafening silence accurately depict a truly lifeless world. 

    The supporting performances are solid as well. Smit-McPhee’s whiny voice and constant crying is a bit much sometimes, but he exudes an emotional depth and understanding far beyond his years. Theron, Guy Pearce and Robert Duvall are all given very limited roles (think less than ten minutes of screen time each) but still give memorable performances that provide a nice break from the two travelers’ interactions. The barely-recognizable Duvall is especially excellent as an old, blinding veteran whom the man and son find struggling to walk on the side of the road.

    But it is through Mortensen’s performance that the film really shines. Ever since his memorable turn as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, Mortensen has become a reliable actor who has consistently churned out solid performances (including a Best Actor nomination for his role in Eastern Promises). Here, however, he reaches new heights. The subtleties of Mortensen’s performance are astounding – his crazed eyes and hoarse, breaking voice in the face of danger shows his willingness to resort to anything to protect his son, the only friend he has left in the world.

    At its heart, The Road is a strong study of the relationship between a father and his son, and the lengths the two will go to in order to maintain their bond. It’s mostly depressing, and it’s certainly not fun, but it is ultimately a very powerful piece with a surprising dose of optimism (albeit a small one) that will resonate with anyone who has a similar connection with a loved one. 


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