Riding in on a surprising wave of hype for a film of this type, John Hillcoat's follow up to The Proposition arrives in cinemas in this country. The Road is already struggling against its reputation. It is a dark, depressing novel, and for once the pre-release hype (apart from that awful first trailer) does not try to pretend it is something it isn't. This meant that I had a lot of trouble persuading people to come and see it with me. “I'm not going to see that! It's depressing!” I heard time and time again. I was always going to go, however. To me, the darker a film is, the more depressing it is, the better I like it. But my God! I wasn't prepared for this!
I am going to avoid spoilers in this review. I may make a few general points that are already well known - but you can rest assured that nothing you read in this review will spoil the film for you should you intend to go and see it.
The plot is really very simple. A catastrophe has struck the planet. Years have passed since this tragedy (which is never explained) and the world is not only dying, it is decaying. It may still be recognisable as the planet we know and depend on for life, but only to the extent that a rotten corpse is recognisable as a human being. This planet is no longer capable of sustaining life. There is literally nothing left. Wondering through this environment is a man and a boy, his son. They are painfully thin, haggard even. Their only belongings they carry with them, either on their back in rucksacks or in a shopping trolley that they struggle to push through the desolate landscape.
Their ultimate destination is merely “South” to escape the harsh climate of their immediate environment, but at the same time they are aiming for the coast. They do not even know what they will find there. They just know it's their goal.
When I first heard about this film (I confess I still haven't read the book), I was really quite excited. It sounded totally like my kind of movie. However, as they got deeper into production and then THAT first trailer arrived, my enthusiasm was rather tempered. It seemed like they had taken a wonderful idea, and turned it into an action movie. However, I needn't have worried. Having now seen it, I can say that this film is a quite simply stunning achievement in film-making and packs an emotional punch that you just may not be expecting. If this review appears a little disjointed at times you will have to forgive me. I am still a little affected by it.
So, what is it that makes this film so special? Well, there are many things - but the major point is the focus of the film. From what I understand, the film jettisons some of the more horrifying and gory parts of the book, and I can see exactly why they have done this. The film still deals with horrifying events and moments, one scene in particular is quite distressing, but this is because the director focuses on the events themselves. They are so affecting because they deal with the effects those events have on the man and the boy. The film is not interested in cheap thrills, or shocking the audience. It is interested in reaching into your core and affecting you on a deep, profound level, and it succeeds in a way that I cannot remember any other film doing.
Let me give you an example without spoilering things too much. Early on in the film, the man shows the boy how to kill themselves using their gun and the only two bullets they have. Many films might take the easy approach, showing the man pointing the gun at the child. But this one doesn't. The man puts the gun in the boy's hands, and as the boy is holding it, he puts it in his mouth, showing the boy exactly what angle to point the gun in order to ensure death. The film focuses on the boy's reaction and my goodness what a reaction it is. You may have a sense of horror at the scene, but your prime one is to truly feel the sense of despair and desolation through the performances of the two actors. Iam not ashamed to admit that the film made me weep.
The performances throughout the film are quite simply amazing. Viggo Mortenson is breathtaking as the man - displaying a really complex character, a man who is essentially gentle but is internally strong and is driven by a deep love for his boy to try and survive as long as possible. This sounds like a character of cliché but there is no way to adequately put in writing how rich and multi-layered his performance is in this film. Anyone who knows his work knows what a great actor he is, but if he isn't at least nominated for an OSCAR after this performance then there is no justice. It is astonishing.
Up to now, probably the benchmark child performance is Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense but Kodi Smit-McPhee's performance as the boy takes child acting to another level. The boy is required to do things here, to essay emotion that no boy of his age should ever have any awareness of. One article I read tells of how they had toyed with the idea of not actually telling the child what the film was really about (apparently, this is the tact that Kubrick took with The Shining). Smit-McPhee's family, however, were adamant that Kodi could cope with the part on all its levels. As an actor he can convey emotion with a flick of the eyes, his posture, or simple little child-like noises that tug at the heartstrings. The aforementioned scene is one perfect example (just look at his eyes, and listen to his voice), but there are many more that I will not mention here for fear of spoilers.
There are two more stand-out performances that I must mention, both barely more than cameos. Robert Duvall as The Old Man also wrings every ounce of emotion out of his role, his rheumy eyes weeping, and uttering some of the best and most quotable lines in the film. Michael K Williams (The Wire) also delivers a notable brief scene as The Thief - which marks a key point where the relationship between the boy and the man changes.
The film itself, as directed by Hillcoat, needs these central performances as an emotional core because the way he presents this world is completely unrelenting. The realisation of a truly destroyed world is one of the best ever put on celluloid. We are used to images of a deserted landscape - it has been done to death (sorry) in films as diverse as I am Legend and 28 Days Later to name but two. But I have never seen a world so decayed presented so realistically on camera. The clichéd approach of a washed out colour palette is used, but it is the environments which seem so realistic. Whether it be skeletal trees, groaning as they give up their purchase in the parched earth and crash to the ground, or a desolate and dry ocean bed with beached liners - the environment is so convincingly presented that it is hard for the viewer not to be totally drawn in, to feel like they are truly part of the world. I could not tell you how much of this is achieved with CGI and how much is set work, but it is always convincing.
The environment is the enemy in this film, but it is not the only problem that the heroes need to deal with. As food supplies have dwindled, so many of the survivors have turned to cannibalism. The portrayal of these people is, like the film, rooted in realism - and it is this which makes them so horrific. The cannibals are not overdone - they appear twice - but when they do they provide a realistic and terrifying foe for the man and boy. Whereas their first appearance maybe a little too influenced by Mad Max for my liking, their attitude and demeanour means that they are truly scary.
So, are there no flaws with this film? Well, yes there are. I am sure someone will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the flashbacks to the man's life with the boy's mother do not appear in the book. However, in the film they do appear rather too anachronistic in tone when compared with the rest of the film. The world pre-disaster is portrayed as a rather too perfect world, with everything colourful and bright. You expect an advert for washing powder to appear any minute. Charlize Theron as his wife does put in a good performance but the resolution to her story seems rather too overwrought - far too over emphasised. Likewise, I am very disappointed to say that the ending is also far too neat a resolution and comes as rather a surprise considering the rest of the film shows no interest in definitive solutions. Stylistically it just does not fit in with the rest of the film. Again, I will say no more than that (if I spoiled the ending you would rightly be furious), but once you have seen the film you will know what I mean.
These are disappointments for sure, but in the grand scheme of things they are minor when considering the sheer majesty of the rest of the film. Some have said that pacing is a problem, with the film dragging slightly in the middle, but I did not find this at all. At no point was I anything other than completely engrossed in the film. I never felt that there was anything wrong with the structure or the editing. I felt the film was perfectly constructed.
It is also true to say that the film will probably take the viewer to places they have rarely been to in a cinema. It IS completely unrelenting. There are very brief upbeat scenes, but these are few and far between and they do very little to break up the unrelenting atmosphere. If you go to see this film then you should expect your emotions to be dragged through the ringer. I am not a parent, and it affected me deeply. I would imagine that if you are a parent you would probably find it even more affecting. You certainly should be prepared for this.
But in an age of box-office returns being King, of vacuous soulless blockbusters ruling the multiplex, it reaffirms your faith in cinema as art that a film like this can make it onto screens. A film that is genuinely not interested in providing easy answers to obvious questions, a film that is prepared to make you think, to affect you deeply, and to take a well-worn scenario and present it in a totally new way. It may be difficult to seek out (my local VUE wasn't even showing it as Avatar was taking up too many screens - isn't that a metaphor for what can be wrong with modern cinema), but I strongly recommend you make the effort. Just do not expect an easy ride.
The best I can do in order to describe this film is steal one of my colleagues phrases and call it the ultimate marmite movie. If you go in there with the wrong expectations, thinking you are going to get an action movie about the end of the world then you are likely to be very disappointed. Likewise, if the central theme of the movie fails to engage with you then there is very little else here to hold your interest.
However, if the exploration of the central father / son relationship does engage with you then the film is likely to move you profoundly. Hillcoat takes cinema to a new realm here, exploring themes so dark, so disturbing that the film is unlikely to be to everyone's taste. It is very much a one-note film, it concentrates only on their relationship and all the other aspects of the film - cannibals, destruction - all exist simply to enrich what the film has to say about this.
There is no doubt that this is extremely brave filmmaking, that exists not to stimulate your brain, but your heart. If you are open to this then it is likely to be a.....not necessarily enjoyable experience, but most certainly a moving one. If not, however, you may well be left wondering what the fuss is about. For this reviewer, however, it is hard to see what film is going to top this one this year, or even this decade. To me, it was that good.
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