Images courtesy of Dimension Films
Review by Ryan Wilson

Maybe it's the paranoid age we live in, but we love a good apocalypse, especially in our movies. Whether technology does us in, or global warming or an asteroid or the Mayan Calendar, moviegoers in the post-atomic age have something of a death wish. Watching end-of-the-world scenarios from cushy theater seats might provide us with some measure of comfort. At least it's not us. Not today. Not yet. The more preposterous the special affect, the more cartoonish our fears become.

Which might be why when a grizzly film like The Road was released last fall, it was largely shunned. There are no androids, no plague-induced vampires in this day after tomorrow saga, just a father and his son trudging through the hollow remains of civilization, scrounging for food and trying not to become food themselves.

Released on DVD on May 25, The Road is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's award-winning novel. The novel is notably minimalistic in style, as well as in backstory, and the film is faithful to McCarthy's vision. We don't know what has happened or where we necessarily are. The boy and his father are simply heading south, where winters won't be so cruel.

If anything, the film might be accused of following McCarthy too closely. At times it feels almost as if the filmmakers wished to honor the novelist before creating a separate work of art. All the best lines from the book make their way into the film through the father's voiceover. For example, considering his son, the father tells us, "If he is not the word of God then God never spoke."

Moments like this are appropriately bleak, yet what's most surprising about The Road is how tender it is while retaining its horror. Take the line I just quoted: it simultaneously offers light and darkness, at once questioning and celebrating divinity and creation. This sort of tension is dramatized early in the film when we see the father demonstrating to his son how to commit suicide with a revolver. We're wired to cringe at the scene, yet we feel, given the context, the tremendous love the father carries for his son, even in the lesson.

None of this would work without Viggo Mortensen as the father. Mortensen is on something of a roll with his career. He excels at playing characters with hidden dimensions. As in A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and Appaloosa, he plays a good man forced into a terrible situation, where he must change his nature to survive. No working actor quietly embodies the heart in conflict with itself like Mortensen. His hungry searching eyes tell you everything in The Road; he's had to harden himself to harden his son, and he hates himself.

In one scene Mortensen's character finds himself in the burnt-out remains of his childhood home. He lets himself remember his previous life. He points out where the Christmas tree was placed, and where they measured his height on the wall growing up. His son, who was born post-apocalypse, doesn't understand what he's even talking about.

The son is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, in one of the best child performances in recent years. Never has the moniker "Papa" carried so many connotations. If the father is the teacher of harsh lessons then the son is the only moral compass left in the world (and therefore the "breath of God"). He is constantly questioning his father, constantly reminding him that they are the "Good Guys," or as the father says the "keeper of the fire," the noble souls.

The "Bad Guys," of course, are the cannibals. And there are some gruesome scenes involving them to be sure. Screenwriter Joe Penhall rearranges McCarthy's sequencing of events a bit, but the plot does not revolve around "bad guys." They are just the worst of what is left. Their purpose is to make us question every survivor met on the road.

The film also wouldn't work without the bare score written by Bad Seeds rock star Nick Cave. His lilting piano and sad strings connect us to the burnt brown set pieces and landscape. The music is especially effective when the father and son exchange deep affection while considering their forlorn future. More than anything director John Hillcoat wants us to feel the frailty in every step his characters take.

This is a perfect follow-up to Hillcoat's 2006 film The Proposition, a Western set in the Australia Outback that ironically resembles parts of McCarthy's violent masterpiece Blood Meridian. Hillcoat is comfortable working with lean characters, lean backdrops, and a lean script. He is about conveying the basics and making us appreciate the small details found in otherwise meaningless terrain.

The Road can perhaps be viewed as a philosophic metaphor. It's how we decide to adapt in order to survive, how many of our core values we're willing to lose along our way. But, to me, the film is more about love and the bond between father and son when nothing else is left.

It's also proof that what we do with what's left of the world is more interesting than the many ways in which the it all could end.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. and produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010