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The Road - Original Film Score Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 15, 2010

  • Movies review


    The Road - Original Film Score Soundtrack Review

    “Are we still the good guys, Papa?”

    When I reviewed Les Baxter's score for Ray Milland's Panic In Year Zero recently, I remarked upon the similarity in plot and theme that the film shared with The Road (see also Andrew Mogford's excellent cinema review). That similarity cannot be made between the two soundtracks, however, which are about as far removed from one another as you can get.

    ”Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death ...”

    Well, folks, that Biblical quote might not be uttered in the film, but it may as well serve as the tagline for it, and for the mesmerising score that helps propel it along The Road. This is the music of damnation and of the slow, inexorable wandering that gets us there. Now that may not sound like much fun, but there is such heart-aching power and fateful beauty here that this is a soundtrack that should not be ignored.

    After tackling John Hillcoat's Aussie-Oater, The Proposition, and then Andrew Dominik's sublime and beautifully melancholic The Assassination Of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (see score review), Nick Cave and his regular scoring collaborator Warren Ellis take on, fittingly enough after those two emotional landslides, the end of the world in Hillcoat's powerful study of intimacy in the face of slow annihilation, The Road. Remaining faithful to Cormac McCarthy's Pullitzer prize-winning novel, Hillcoat and his musical associates seek to turn tragedy on a global scale into a searing portrayal of devotion and determination, and to find the heartrending strength of the bond between father, or the Man (Viggo Mortenson) and son, the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) amid the lawless chaos and misery of a world that is inescapably dying all around them.

    The Road is the very epitome of a Marmite-movie - you are either going to love it (and by “love” I mean be moved, disturbed and entranced by it) or simply loathe it. Although many critics have lavished praise upon Hillcoat's soul-numbing exposé of Humanity's last rites, and the film has proved very popular at the box office, there are lots of people who remain untouched and have even been bored to tears by it. Personally, I thought it was a triumph - a terrifically resonant experience that challenged morals, smashed expectations and championed devotion in the midst of enormous calamity. The book is, indeed, a strong and audacious achievement and the willingness of John Hillcoat and his screenwriter Joe Penhall to depict its morose saga without soft-soaping and watering-down the horrors and the abject nihilism whilst still remaining entertaining is nothing short of stunning. This is not your typical apocalyptic movie. This feels real, raw and remorselessly unforgiving. And, totally removing itself from the plethora of other Armageddon offerings, it abjectly refuses to hold out any ray of light for either its characters, or for us to cling to. The fact that Cormac McCarthy is a stalwart defender of it speaks volumes. With only one pivotal image from his lean, episodic prose purposely (and thankfully) left out - you'll have to read the book to discover just what that image is - Hillcoat's adaptation is remarkable in its adherence to detail, dialogue and pace. Having now read the book with the music playing, it is extremely rewarding to hear how well both page and score go together - another incredible symmetry in a story that feels like a great circle closing in on itself.

    Of course, this sort of music, as well it should be given the subject matter it addresses, is mournful and melancholy, which is something that Cave and Ellis have proven that they are exceedingly capable of producing. Yet, far from being depressing - as the story and the theme of long, slow, arduous survival, unimaginable personal loss and the utter absence of all hope cannot help but be - the music is lulling, lyrical and full of soporific lament. As a mood piece, the film is extraordinarily defined. Hillcoat dips his world into a pit of ash and chokes it steadily and relentlessly, snuffing out the light of optimism and the father's faith in anything but the love and companionship of his son, yet this does not mean that the score has no time for tranquillity, or reflection or for the opening-up of the soul. Where the film is a bleak grey canvas of despair, the music offers colour. Where the eyes of the father are haunted and grief-stricken, Cave and Ellis find a source of inner harmony. In the solemn longing that the Boy has for the friendship of another child, they weave the iridescent threads of innocence. Where the fruitlessness of the duo's odyssey seems towering and suffocating, the dream-like rhythm of the score aches to discover some last vestige of beauty in the blighted, desiccated landscape. Father and Son provide the camaraderie that makes all of this possible.

    I could write endless paragraphs on the topic but, when it all boils down to it and in total honesty, I must confess that I have no idea why the music of melancholia is so attractive and irresistible. Quite why the concept of profound loss, intimately wrought grief and of fathomless, almost transcendent tragedy can become as deadly alluring as a flame is to a moth, and how that should then also inspire so elemental and soothing a melody as that which would have you purposely seeking it out and cherishing its innate misery is a puzzle that only the gods can possibly answer. Cave and Ellis know something of that secret, though ... and they allow a little of its bitter-sweet essence to escape from the bottle here.

    Mortenson is an actor that positively thrives on alienated and detached characters. He loves to internalise and to not come up with the expected angles - just look at his performances in GI Jane (yeah, seriously), The History Of Violence and Eastern Promises, and even his tenure as Aragorn, the King Of Men in the LOTR trilogy. Here, he cuts back to the bone, both physically and emotionally, driven and darkly besotted with the ghosts of the past that he longs to simultaneously keep alive and to eliminate. Alongside his young sidekick, played so exquisitely by Smit-McPhee who, by turns, seems almost screen-clutchingly fragile, then so worldly and so strong, then so frightened but so beloved, he paints a figure of almost Old Testament resolve, but one that has been gradually broken down by the agony of what once was and what he knows can never, ever be again.

    This is no Mad Max-style comic-book evocation of Man's downfall, nor does it offer the quasi-fantastical luxury that a well-fortified few can enjoy a la Dawn Of The Dead or even I Am Legend. Not even the glimmer of WALL-E's galactic salvation is offered. Without apology, this is the end. And it is cold and it is miserable. And it is lonely. So lonely. Cave and Ellis find the faint, though dying embers of happiness in a world whose heart is thudding slowly towards silence, yet they cannot, and never once try to distract us from that softly liberating sensation of just barely hanging on. The film hammers home the eternal guilt-trip that every parent feels, but takes that lovely though, at the same time, excruciating commitment to its ultimate extension. Every moment of every day, you worry for your kids, that elusive, ever-gnawing anxiety eating away at you like a cancer of the soul. And that is in a world of supposed law and order. Of civilisation. How, then, to find the musical voice for that same natural fear magnified ten-thousandfold in a wasteland populated only by roving gangs of cannibals and those already half-starved to death? The father's grim and noble quest to engender his son with the skills necessary for him to survive after he, himself, has gone is the same that has tasked Man ever since the very beginning, just acutely intensified and calloused further by the knowledge that all that was good in the world had been rubbed out in the blink of an eye. As George Romero has emphasised all along, society resorts to devouring itself all too easily. The overriding theme in the score is, therefore, heartfelt and yearning, morose and almost obsessively dignified. Worked beautifully across piano, violins and cello, this sets in stone and dust and ash the last lessons in life.

    Each note of the main theme is a strangled and parched grasp for food, love, warmth and a reason for living. Cleverly, it combines this last-ditch hope with an overarching canopy of all-too-obvious futility. That Ellis and Cave and their devoted band are able to make this engaging, humanistic and spiritually energising is the very essence of why this score works so well. The soft, rolling piano motif that gently transports the main theme embodies the pointless journey they are making down the Road to nowhere. So richly haunting and memory-laden, this calming rhapsody soothes but does not lie about the prospects. The piano echoes against the laboured wheezing of the strings, and we hear the slight tinkling of chimes and ethnic percussion somewhere in the background. Track 2, The Road, develops this opening passage into the apocalyptic pastoral that becomes the main theme that we will hear throughout the score. The violins quiver in regret and sorrow, the metronomic melody from the piano marks time as if the patter of dull, ceaseless rain fall. Or tears. This theme varies in tune and flavour in the next track, but remains essentially the same, harbouring some delicate sense of routine and beleaguered acceptance as the two pick their way through ransacked cities and over frozen, infertile ground.

    The music of the damned, but not necessarily of those claimed by the Devil - this story, very wisely and accurately, conflagrates all forms of outside religion - thrums with the despondent collapse of hope and the twisted anger at a once-bounteous landscape that now offers nothing other than grey ash and dead wood. Pedalled with the soft murmuring of dreams of warped recollection, the influence of Ellis is written huge across this blighted canvas. Versatile instrumentalist and huge contributor to Cave's The Bad Seeds, Grinderman and Three Dirty Things, his spell of pensive, shivering dark magic looms heavily over all. The more intense moments - usually cannibal encounters and a very grim discovery made down in the basement of an isolated farmhouse - are drill-like with atonal discord, the small ensemble that the two composer/musicians have gathered around them jamming into a frenzy of strings so anguished they sound like some sampled engine whine. Punctuating the eerie, dream-like melancholia that otherwise dominates the score, these vicious little interludes are severe jolts that actually hurt when they arrive. In the film, of course, this is necessary and even here, on album, once you've bought into the desperation of the theme, they become an intrinsic element of the darkness the scenario promotes.

    The pair seem to work at a different end of the spectrum for existential, textured and essentially minimalist soundscapes from the likes of Clint Mansell (Moon) or Cliff Martinez (Solaris), yet retain many of the same thematic platforms. Their music is altogether more lyrical and poetic, structured right from the start in such a way that you know, instinctively, that it will ultimately turn full circle and eventually envelop you. Hypnotic themes undulate softly, gently, only vaguely making their twists and turns apparent. Not for these boys the adrenaline-pumping percussion and dynamism of pounding action cues, though their brand of short sharp shock motifs do add a dangerous flavour of pin-drop suspense and nerve-jangling tension when they arrive. Tracks such as The Cannibals, as its very title suggests, and both The House and The Cellar, especially, are strangling mixes of blood-freezing horror. The latter coupling even recall the electrifying aggression of Alexandre Aja's remake of The Hills Have Eyes with their cloying, skin-crawling madness and raging white-noise. The Cannibals, by contrast, takes an almost sea shanty-like Master And Commander approach to the terrifying arrival from out of the black maw of a tunnel of a truckload of red-neck gut-munchers. With such agitated slamming of the violin strings you can almost imagine a demented Captain Jack Aubrey going hell for leather down in his quarters whilst a perturbed Stephen Maturin clogs-up his ears, and when some furious tub-thumping bedlam then ensues, the image is practically complete. But just as Hillcoat shies away from the grislier elements of the narrative, so, too, do the composers, and even if dread is never far away, mimicking the covert nature of the trip father and son are making across a countryside studded with pockets of depravity and evil, they quickly mask it and dilute it again with those softly smothering cadences of blasted optimism and dogged affection.

    Track 6, The Mother is almost pleasantly normal, violin and cello summoning up the rainbow-painted recollections of the Man before the unimaginable took place and destroyed everything. But compare this with Memory in Track 8 which commences with a long line from grief-stricken violin, drawn out like torn sinew. Something of an Irish lilt is introduced, with more strings and a gorgeously mournful cello coming together. This is a wordless song. As the Man's wife (Charlize Theron seen only in some colossally traumatic, yet amazingly restrained flashbacks) contemplates the unthinkable and reveals the true horror of what the disaster has done to them. Delicately lush, yet as fragile as thin ice, the cue soaks up a personal tragedy that is so gently devastating that it haunts us as much as it does Viggo's numbed, remorse-wracked character. Cave and Ellis reach out in desperation and despair as does the Man, but their own music snubs them and then fades away in the darkness.

    The Far Road plays like a skeletal cousin of the main theme, whilst The Church applies some of the merest gleams of sunshine in this cold and drained musical landscape. Again, this is soft and slow, melancholic but upturned by the light phrasing of the piano. Something in the tone of Track 12, The Journey, the longest cue on the album, reminds me of the amazing score for the weird horror/Western Ravenous from Blur's Damon Albarn and celebrated movie composer Michael Nyman. Driven, repetitive and incessant, a handful of piano notes persist in gently unhinging us, as percussion throbs just below the surface. Hypnotic and deceptive, there is even a hint of Howard Blake's The Snowman about this that adds an unexpected frisson of snatched childhood and the crushing of dreams - which is only appropriate. The mood of the film, and of the score has, by now, seeped into your bones. I've remarked recently how both James Horner and Hans Zimmer have proven themselves highly adept at actually telling stories with their music. Well, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are doing exactly the same thing. You can feel the pain of trudging down The Road, the fear of what lies around every corner, the misery at having been compelled to leave one small and isolated nest of comfort and relative luxury for this agonising march again. Even if you haven't read the book or seen the film, the music is expertly conveying the emotions that lie behind each chapter that the Man and the Boy encounter.

    Peace and harmony are sieved through the trance-like measure of Track 14's The Bath, yet the background tone of darkness still threatens to tumble over the soft music-box jingle of a scattering of carefree notes from the piano. Tension returns for The Family, next. Quieter and far less frenzied than in the likes of The Cellar or The House, the strings are still expertly tortured over long scratches, before this then gives way to something of a reluctant epiphany, glistening and shrill with both promise and threat. The Beach, afterwards, then returns us to the main theme, now impossibly softer, more gentle. The piano offers soliloquy, the strings still cry. The theme now seems to offer a kind of horizon to us, opening up the score with space and remarkable simplicity. The story has reached a turning point, but it is one marked with anguish and bravery. As one dream fades, another presents itself, the music, like the journey, folding over and over again. Yet, as endless as this may like to feel, the final shimmering cue, The Boy, then trembles into a silence that seems to echo with the hollowness of such wasted hope. The score may have ended, but that theme still flows through your mind. And, as the film closes, no matter how black the screen may go, the image of figures moving painfully across a decayed land still burns.

    “You've got to keep the fire alive.”

    “What fire?”

    “The fire inside.”

    Sounds corny, doesn't it? But The Road gets away with it by laying its heart upon its sleeve and offering up the last shreds of tenderness in a world that is all shot to hell.

    Though the album doesn't run strictly in film chronological order, the passage of Man and Boy is brilliantly wrought across what is quite a short running time. Book and film are both episodic, but the music is the glue that binds Hillcoat's adaptation together, gelling it as stubbornly and as faithfully as the bond between the two weary, frightened travellers. By now, when you hear that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are composing a film score, you pretty much know what you are going to get. There are passages and motifs in this that reflect back upon former compositions and that combination of the quasi-folk/Irish lilt and the hauntingly intimate becomes something that you end up regarding as eminently reassuring. They find the inner tone of the story - not just for the characters, but for the film, itself, its rhythms and its emotional core. If anything, their style could be described as “film-folk” and they have, over the course of only a couple of scores, already created a unique signature that is wholly seductive to certain films and moods.

    As she did when she first heard me playing their score for The Assassination Of Jesse James, my wife felt compelled to denounce the music here as being profoundly depressing and dirge-like. And, of course, it is. Sometimes acutely so. But, as with the ballads that accompanied Jesse James and that Coward Robert Ford, there is something undeniably affecting about the cues on this disc that is designed to - and utterly successful at - reaching deeper into you than you first think. Almost primordial chords filter through and eventually awaken possibly long dormant race memories, rekindling a lost sense of dreadful mortal understanding. Although that sounds highly pretentious, you can bet that Cave and Ellis sought to examine and unearth just such emotions and reflections when they wrestled to capture a dominion's last gasp. A father and son heading not towards some bright shining light, nor some miracle Earth-saving cure, but to a cold, ashen nothingness that will, unavoidably, choke them up. Doom, the score seems to say, is something that Hollywood lies to us about being able to thwart. It is real. It is coming. Ultimately it is probably better to just accept it than to fight it.

    An awesome score for an awesome film.

    Full Track Listing

    1. Home 2.04

    2. The Road 3.41

    3. Storytime 2.24

    4. The Cannibals 2.08

    5. Water And Ash 1.27

    6. The Mother 2.46

    7. The Real Thing 2.32

    8. Memory 3.42

    9. The House 3.16

    10. The Far Road 2.45

    11. The Church 1.34

    12. The Journey 4.14

    13. The Cellar 1.17

    14. The Bath 2.22

    15. The Family 3.37

    16. The Beach 3.50

    17. The Boy 3.09


    The Road is another worthy addition to the successful pairing of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Their distinctive brand of wistful musical mourning and lyrical harmony accurately depicts the last vestiges of humanity strung out along a wretched Road to oblivion, forlorn of all but the most meagre of hopes and, ultimately, spiritually and psychologically lost. It may not provide the most heart-warming or exciting of experiences, but the score fits the film perfectly and, in the right mood, becomes a tremendous and haunting reflection of the brave endeavour that both the book and the movie have achieved.

    At first, knowing their style, I longed for a theme that would be as brilliant as the classic Song For Bob from their Jesse James collaboration, and felt somewhat disappointed. Now, however, The Road's main phrase has become, in its own way, at least as beautiful and as profound. In fact, probably more so. Restrained and drifting, the main theme acts like a lullaby for a broken world that just wants to close its eyes for the last time. This sort of writing, like the film it lends voice to, can hit people in different ways and it would be pointless to argue the pros and cons of such a style. For me and, I hope and suspect, many others, this works extremely well. Painful, poignant and yet entrusted with a quiet dignity that shimmers somewhere between life and death, this is the moving lament for a final few who have not quite forgotten what it means to be human. The Road, courtesy of Cave and Ellis, along with Hillcoat's wonderfully bleak yet tender film, is well worth venturing down. It is about the end of the journey ... for us all.

    A gentle majesty. Highly recommended.

    The Rundown





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