The Road

UK release date: 19 October 2009

cast list
Viggo Mortensen
Kodi Smit-McPhee
Charlize Theron
Robert Duval
Guy Pearce

directed by
John Hillcoat

After the apocalypse, a father and son travel together across a bleak, grey America, hoping to find some semblance of humanity in a world devoid of anything good. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cormac McCarthy novel, John Hillcoat’s The Road is a taut and disturbing, but somehow heartening, tale of the very human bond between father and son and the unstoppable need to find life and connection amid seeming ruin.

A man (Viggo Mortenson) and his young son (the astonishingly good Kodi Smit-McPhee) “carry the fire” through a nearly unrecognisable landscape – of petrified trees, windblown ash, and deserted, cracked highway and push their meager belongings before them in a shopping cart. The nights are cold, the air is poison, and food is scarce. The few remnants of humanity are barely human as many turn to cannibalism and blood cultism for sustenance.

In the face of this, the man struggles to keep his son alive, and to keep him safe, to instill in him any sort of morals that can be salvaged from a time he never knew (having been born just after the apocalypse). The boy’s only sense of right and wrong stems from the simple idea of “good guys” and “bad guys,” and his father’s continual insistence that they must “carry the fire.”

Things begin badly for the duo, and continually get worse as they flee cannibal road gangs and the father begins to succumb to his ever-pressing health problems. Clutching a gun with only two bullets (one for father, one for son, should events come to such finality), the two walk together towards the coast, which they hope will offer some promise of civilisation.

Along the way, the two come across a mostly blind pseudo-prophet named Eli (Robert Duval, whose ten or so minutes should easily qualify him for a Best Supporting Actor nomination). The man finds him hard to trust, but the boy, in the interest of carrying the fire, offers the man some food – slim hope, perhaps, that goodness may prevail after all.

Hillcoat’s film is dark and troubling, and often difficult to watch. Its only moments of relative relief from the preternatural wasteland come in the form of flashbacks, in which the man’s wife (Charlize Theron, in an achingly fragile performance) begs him to join her in suicide, arguing that death is better than what their lives have become, and that the world as it stands is no place for a child. Echoing McCarthy’s prose, the man narrates her death: “She was gone, and the coldness of it was her final gift.”

The world as seen through Javier Aguirresarobe’s lens is dim and expansive in its emptiness. CGI is nearly non-existent here, though. What’s truly amazing, is that there are, indeed, parts of America that look this bleak (namely, Mt St Helens in Oregon, post-Katrina Louisiana, and coal mining areas of Pennsylvania). And underscored by a stunningly beautiful and mystifyingly heartbreaking score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (who also worked together on The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford), the film achieves something wholly engrossing. Mortenson and Smit-McPhee portray a father-son bond so real that it seems nearly impossible that they’re acting at all; the gravity of their situation is never in question, and there’s not an untrue frame in the film.

The Road, quite simply, is a stunner. It’s a film that requires a lot from its audience, and that demands to be watched actively. The tension builds and builds to near breaking, and the few scenes of relief are painful in their brevity. No film in recent memory matches The Road for sheer emotional weight and stomach-churning brutality. But underneath it all, there’s that glimmer of hope, that notion that there are still good guys, and that even in the darkest of times, there is, indeed, still a fire to carry.

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