Directed by John Hillcoat
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee
Scrawled in spray paint, “Behold … the Valley of Slaughter” serves as an ominous warning before the director lowers his lens into the desolation of bleak hopelessness and human depravity. The Road, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name written by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men), focuses on an unnamed father (played by Viggo Mortensen) and his son (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they struggle for survival after a previous cataclysmic event wipes out most of the life on Earth. Those remaining must scrounge around for supplies as they encounter impending perils, such as dwindling health, the unforgiving elements, and cannibals. The father is driven to lead the pair to the coast, hoping there will be other “good people” like them.
Most of the scenes in the film lack brightness and hue, and the colors are subdued, diluted away to emphasize the drained surroundings the camera sees. Contrasting scenes with light are depicted as flashbacks that show the viewer a happier time, with piano playing, flowing sundresses, and vibrant flower gardens. There are also not so happy flashbacks that include the wife’s unwillingness to bring the son to term, bitter thoughts of agonized existence, and eventually suicide. Most of the film consists of melancholy shots of desolate forests and towns (the backdrop for much of the filming was Pennsylvania) while interspersing various plot devices to develop McCarthy’s story. The director strings these shots and plot devices rather slowly, pacing the film such that the audience’s attention is held but not too strongly.
Although I had several issues with the plot, I cannot take them up here (because I haven’t read the novel, but I assume the film is a faithful adaptation). The film is painfully slow, almost like the dragged out debilitation of Mortensen over the course of the movie. Much care is taken to make sure every grimace, open wound, and obvious emotional response of despair is painstakingly detailed. Most of it is gratuitous and pointless, which is frustrating for much of the film.
As a rumored contender for various Academy Awards, The Road is a mediocre film at best. The strong suit of the film is Mortensen’s acting. He provides a quiet emotional power as he leads his son through difficult passages. His display of moral ambiguity is especially exciting to watch as he interacts with his provokers with increasing brutality with the progressing degradation of his mind and body. I can foresee a Best Actor nomination for Mortensen as he embodies a living skeleton, in body and spirit. In his acting debut, Smit-McPhee provides a refreshing contrast to the doom and gloom of The Road, proving that hope, innocence, and goodwill can exist in the absence of law and order. The father teaches his son about the perils in their lives, reminiscent of the film The Pursuit of Happyness, with the similar theme of the father-son journey.
It goes without saying that the movie is grim, sometimes violently so. Humans are locked in storage cellars for slaughter. Hanging corpses sway with frigid gusts. The road is paved with slush and debris of a previous world. Despite this desolation, a feather of hope provides enough optimism to persevere in any circumstance. As an analogy for life, the film presents the fears and dangers of everyday existence as mounting obstacles, yet the flicker of hope we find carries us forward.