Dec 1, 2009

Movie Review: The Road

Movie Review: The Road GPA 3.9

Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron

Screenplay: John Penhall
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy

Director: John Hillcoat

I thought it was only the cockroaches and their ilk that would survive nuclear winter, but The Road (based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel) says there might be a few of us humans left after all. This is the story of two of them, a father and his son (about ten years old?), traipsing around the earth their species has tried to destroy. And these two are not alone.

It’s a miracle that a premise this grim kept me in the theater at all. In fact, I was the proverbial rivet.

First is the simple fact that there is a plot; things happen, in a sequence, for a reason. We’re tense about what will happen next, and I see no reason to be disappointed; whether bleak or cautiously optimistic, these scenes and episodes make sense, even as they keep us guessing with each test of character, each inconclusive comment on what we humans are.

Pictorially, the movie is not one dreary photograph after another; instead there’s remarkable variety within the sameness of the constant grey sky and November landscapes. Changes in subject, changes in light and angles, shifts from landscape to characters—including the humans other than the two at the center—plus a few brief flashbacks provide enough variety and surprise to keep the eye and psyche satisfied, though always sober and never complacent. Also, as much as I hesitate to say it, even without sunlight there is a kind of beauty in these bare trees and Appalachian hills covered with fallen leaves. Also, watch for the possibility of something important in the images of water; I'm trying to avoid words like symbolism and redemption, but my grip is loosening.

Like the landscape, the themes mix a little hope into the starkness. On the obvious and dominant downside, humanity has finally done the unthinkable: the holocaust has happened, a few years prior to our current story. But as a father and son make their way south to survive the approaching winter, their individual characters, their relationship, and one or two folks and scenes along the way illustrate that there was and is virtue and beauty among us, even as we face ourselves at our worst, in the wake of our most self-destructive disaster.

So why not a 4.0 for The Road? First, as much as I love Robert Duvall, so distinctive a voice has no place here, especially not coming as a surprise and in a feeble effort to disguise an iconic actor. Already I've grudgingly forced myself to accept Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron as a couple of poor and ordinary country folk. Why not drop Sir Laurence Olivier and Lawrence Welk into Appalachia while we’re at it?

Also, in last 15-20 minutes, I find some implausibility in the father’s choices, given weather and topography, about where to plop down and whether going for a swim might be a good idea. Finally, the appearance of four and half or five new characters at the end comes entirely too close to a deus ex machina for my tastes. The final scene is not impossible, but the fit is a little loose in a world where cannibalism is common.

I don’t know what scientists are saying about the likelihood of the McCarthy and Hillcoat vision of post-apocalyptic America and earth, but with the minor reservations voiced above, it feels realistic, including the possibility that writing us off as entirely evil and stupid is simplistic and premature. So, whether you’ve thought a lot or not at all about nuclear holocaust, this film ought to rub some hard edges off your conclusions, one way or the other. And that’s what art is for.

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Jeff M said...

Did you read the book, Banjo? I've read all of McCarthy's work, and this one, believe it or not, is his most hopeful. What I do know is that I had vivid and in some respects terrifying dreams after reading the book a second time. I rarely recall my dreams.

Banjo52 said...

Very weird, Jeff--just yesterday a friend said the same thing about his dreams after reading The Road.

I haven't read the book (yet?). Now I'm not sure I should, though you're the third person to recommend it--if I'm caught up on my sleep.

PJ said...

I'm disappointed to hear you think the choice of Viggo Mortenson isn't plausible as I've been thinking he would be the perfect choice. If they uglied-up Charlize, maybe, but Viggo seems dark enough to me. This is a movie I've considered seeing if only because they could make a movie from a McCarthy novel. You have a flair for this, Banjo, now I'm very interested in seeing the film.

PJ said...

PS I meant to tell you how much I like the photographs.

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, Paula. And I must say, as hunkdom goes, they uglied up Viggo pretty good to my eye, but let's see what you think. I admire Charlize Theron for taking uglied up roles like this, but you can only ugly her up so far, which is not very far at all.

I guess it's obvious that I think this whole premise of uglying up the beauties is fun. Maybe I'm still mad about Redford as Gatsby--not so much un-uglied as simply Wrong. Maybe I'm a sulker.

What about the new cop on CSI Miami? Isn't he too pretty? Was Delco--regular people Delco--good enough? But the new guy is starting to seem like one of the good guys. I feel a triangle coming with him, Calleigh, and Boa Vista. Love among the innards.

Anonymous said...

That Gatsby was criminally negligant. I can’t imagine anyone involved had actually read the book. If they had, even worse.

Would be fun to give the screenplay a real attempt, wouldn't it. The casting would be oh so secondary.

PJ said...

Sulking is good.

Don't get me started on CSI Miami. At our house Horatio Caine takes more verbal abuse than any super hero could endure. I'm missing AC Delco, though. There's a new cop? A love triangle? Really?

Jeff M said...

Ugly up Charlize? You ever see the film Monster, for which Charlize won academy award for best actress? If you haven't, be prepared to see a makeup job that has no rivals in film history.

I still don't know if I want to see this film. The book was enough, and I'm very displeased that the director and writer felt they had to add to the husband/wife story line when, in the book, it is barely explained at all --- just enough, like the glint of glass, which is like it is for most people, our most treasured memories: just glints of glass, slivers, painful charges that leap into us like currents.

Banjo52 said...

Hiker, what a challenge to do the screenplay! As for casting, I've often spouted off about Gatsby being more idea than flesh and blood, hence the foolishness of trying to put him on film. But if someone's going to gamble, the actor should be an unknown.

Paula, I'm guessing about the love triangle--just want to be on the record that some predicted it, and why not Banjo? Did Delco have relationships with both women? Calleigh for sure. And some guy did with Boa Vista. As for Horatio, he was a completely comic character-caricature until very recently (I've only been watching for a year, mostly re-runs). But he's starting to grow on me, stylized posturing and all. Has he changed or have I?

Jeff,I did see Monster, and I completely agree. I'm tempted to take the time to look up her filmography--my impression is that she's uglied up at least as often as not. You are nicely poetic on the wife's role in the book; it's not too far off to say the movie tries for that effect too--Charlize has only a few short (but powerful) scenes.

PJ said...

I think Delko was free with the ladies. I just can't talk about Horatio, it runs that deep.

Jeff, I was thinking about Monster myself.

Banjo52 said...

Paula, I love your antipathy for Horatio. I started there; between his poses and the grinding up of human bodies, I didn't even watch the show for years. Then, in reruns, I began to find him hysterically funny, as over-the-top as the photography. Now, as I said, he's becoming almost my 21st century Gary Cooper, Joe Friday, and so forth--lonely, shuffling, leader, hunched with the burden of his integrity, his skll. Who knew we could make an icon from a skinny carrot-top who states the name of everyone twice, gravely, as he goes through obsessive rituals with his shades and utter-mumbles profundities. Who knew? Paula, give him another chance, I beg you. He NEEDS you . . . .

PJ said...

Banjo, Banjo, my friend (removes sunglasses), I'll give him another try, although I may have to wait until after the new year for those new episodes.

Banjo52 said...

Paula, great imitation! But no pressure to keep trying Horatio.
(This last comment of yours got a little lost--just now found it, 12/5 4pm).

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