TIFF Review: The Road

The Road (2009, directed by John Hillcoat)

When Walk the Line played here oh those handful of years ago, I recall describing it as a "well-intentioned failure". It's a movie that means well, but makes just one or two mistakes that in my arrogant opinion sink it.

The Road is the polar opposite of a well-intentional failure. It's a misguided success. Everything about the film is just about perfect: the look, the direction, the performances. And it doesn't make a lick of difference, because even as perfect as it is, it just doesn't work.

Let's start from the top, although if you've read the book you don't need a plot recap. The Earth has suffered some sort of apocalypse. Fire has swept the globe, and civilization has collapsed as all the animals and crops have died, making food incredibly scarce and driving survivors to madness and cannibalism. A man and his son travel down the road, aiming south for the coast as the temperature drops due to ash choking out the sun. They have little keeping them going other than pure stubborn survival instinct on the part of the father, and their love for each other.

Sounds pretty bleak, right? Well, it is, and that's the problem. Post-apocalyptic stories require one crucial element: hope and the possibility of rebirth. In the Road Warrior, hope comes in the form of the precious petrol, and the tales of a distant refuge. In Children of Men, hope comes literally in the form of rebirth, and a baby born after decades of despair and infertility.

But in The Road, there is no hope. No possibility of a solution to the planet's death spasms. No city rising from the ruins. No green shoots poking through the snow and ash. There is only the monotony of day after hungry day, and the reality of two people watching each others' lives tick away.

Don't get me wrong, it seems like great material to work with. Viggo Mortensen is predictably unpredictable and brilliant as the father desperately trying to live just because it's all he knows to do. The son (relative newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) is excellent as a child who internalizes his father's lessons even as his father's actions drift further away from the moral compass he's trying to instill. Various famous faces pop up in supporting roles and do great work, particularly Charlize Theron as their long-lost wife and mother. And John Hillcoat creates a stunning believable dead world in which those actors can do their thing.

But it's all seems so futile. Theron's despair, shown in flashback, seems like the only sane reaction to the insane situation they find themselves in. Viggo keeps himself and his son going out of pure inertia, not out of any sense that there's a better world on the horizon. The movie feels like we're just marking time, because that's what Viggo is doing, just marking time. It's all there in his eyes, the hopelessness and desperation. And while it's a great bit of acting, it also makes it that much harder to invest anything in the story. Does it really matter whether they end up dead of starvation, or disease, or in someone's belly, or by their own hand?

Which I guess is the point. If you think it does matter, you're probably going to respond to this movie much more strongly than I did.

Right at the very end, a tiny sliver of hope gets tossed our way. Father and son find a small beetle, alive, and watch it fly up into the sky. But for me it wasn't enough, and came too late. The effects, the acting, they'd all done their job too well.

This was a dead world, not one waiting for rebirth. There's no future here.

1 comment:

  1. The point of the book was that even if the world was dead, love, the breath of God through humanity, lived.