Do you ever wish you would die?
No. It would be foolish to ask for luxuries during times like these.
Times like these represent a post-apocalyptic world where, for reasons never explained, civilization and most of every living creature has been wiped out; a world where forests and cities and mountains have been replaced by a grey barren landscape littered with dead trees; a world where the earth itself seems to grow impatient with the sound of footsteps, often starting fires and creating earthquakes in order to rid itself of any intrusion; a world where the last remnants of man roam in cannibalistic gangs hunting for food.
At first glance this may not sound like the kind of cinematic experience you’re looking for during the holidays. Not with glib Victorian-era detectives and CGI’d Smurfs to choose from. But director John Hillcoat’s spellbinding, emotionally moving, and frequently terrifying adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning “The Road
” is, at least in spirit, richly rewarding and therefore perfect for this time of year. This is the rare film about something that matters.
Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) push a shopping cart down an empty road framed by tall, bare trees swaying in a wind that makes an unholy sound. Both are filthy, exhausted, constantly threatened by cannibals, always hungry, and father and son. They head south towards the coast never knowing what’s around the corner. One day it could be marauders, the next a stash of non-perishable food. Why they’re headed in this direction doesn’t matter. What matters is what father teaches son along the way: “Keep the fire.”
That fire is our own humanity.
Man fully understands that Boy might very well lose his life on the road. But no matter how desperate things get Man will never let his son lose what makes him human. A revolver, a few rounds, and what it takes to press the barrel against the boy’s forehead will ensure that. A species of human might well survive this holocaust, a predatory species all too willing to feast on its own. But for Man that’s not enough. Humanity must survive or nothing means anything, and so at all costs he preserves this in his boy.
Mortensen delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as a decent, everyday man bearing the unspeakable sadness of losing his wife (Charlize Thereon) and charged with guarding the most precious and fragile part of his son, even if he must make the ultimate sacrifice to do so. As a young boy coming of age in Hell, 12 year-old Smit-McPhee is startlingly good using none of those child actor affectations that have been all the rage these last ten years. In her small but pivotal role, Theron’s excellent as a mother unable to deal with bringing a child into a world with no future other than deprivation. Two other supporting roles are memorably handled but I won’t name names and spoil the pleasant surprise I felt when they arrived.
Thanks to two remarkable lead performances and the measured, steady tone Hillcoat perfectly calibrates and never let’s get away from him, almost immediately you’re emotionally invested in the narrative and the plight of its characters. Most effective are heart-rending flashbacks involving the tragedy of Theron’s character. The sense of loss that hangs over every unremittingly bleak frame lingers long after the credits roll.
The spell Hillcoat casts from the opening scene to the last also lingers. And what a pleasure it is these days to be completely drawn into a film without ever once being awkwardly snapped out of it by some clumsy narrative misstep. The beautifully desolate locations and seamless CGI imagery are as crucial to that success as anything.
Most everything Hollywood produces these days seems to be overloaded with eye-popping imagery in the hopes we’ll forget how barren and empty the characters and story are. Part "Fires on the Plain
," part "Bicycle Thief
," but all Cormac McCarthy, the despairing wastelands of “The Road” might be barren but the characters and the message they carry is anything but. While not for children, this bleak but affecting story of the hope found in a father’s abiding love and, most importantly, faith in his only son, is not only a beautifully produced reminder of what’s important this time of year, it’s also one of the best films of the year.