The Road (review)

With a Whimper

I don’t often feel like I must must must see a film a second time before I write about it. I mean, sure, in an ideal world, I’d have the luxury of the time to see a really great film three or four times, in order to best explore all its nuances before I sit down to get my thoughts about it in order. In the real world, I’m lucky if I can get to a film once. I’m lucky if I have more than a day or two to think about it before I have to write my review.
But since I saw The Road six weeks ago, I have been desperately trying to make some time for another screening of it. (I never did.) Because that first screening was so humbling — and I don’t think I’ve ever used that word before — that even now I can barely manage to uncurl myself from the fetal ball it makes my brain curl into just to think about it enough to wrap my brain around it in a rational, critical manner. And yet I worry at it like a loose tooth of childhood, too, secure in the terrible knowledge that if the world ends, this is how it will be, and also that its coming seems as inevitable as the falling out of that tooth. Didn’t it always feel like something of a relief when a loose baby tooth finally gave up? There’s that feeling, watching The Road, too — like we’ve been holding our collective breath forever, waiting for this shoe to drop, and at last it’s happened.

Anyone who was a child during the Cold War, when the spectre of nuclear annihilation was dangled over our heads on a daily basis to the point where you almost wished it would just happen already and we could be done with it, knows what I mean.

In case I wasn’t clear: The Road is a really great film — truly great in the classical sense of the word, as grand as our most terrible fears and as wild as our most outlandish hopes and as intimate as being alive can be. It’s not a fun movie. Not a pleasant one. A hard one, in its uncompromising depiction of a dying planet Earth. And a difficult one, in its parsimony in dealing out the hope that is its greatest treasure. And a brutal one, in its overt, explicit expression of all our apocalyptic nightmares.

Look: this is it. The world is over here. We are well and truly fucked. Civilization is done. Humanity is dead except for a few straggling, starving survivors who will just as easily eat your flesh as say hello, they’re that ravenous. There will be no last-minute reprieve — the last minute has long since come and gone. There’s no hero who’s going to save the day. There’s no escape… except through suicide… if you’re lucky enough to have a bullet to do the job.

It is a literally gray world that The Man (Viggo Mortensen: Good, Eastern Promises) and his son, The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), trudge through day after day. (No one here has any names — this is a world that has been stripped of anything civilized.) It’s cold, and the almost-deserted fields and roads they wander are covered in the ash that rains down constantly because the planet is burning, and they’re hungry all the time, because nothing grows anymore, and there are no animals, not even birds in the sky. We don’t know what happened: could be nuclear war, though it seems more likely to have been a comet or meteor strike, or even the ridiculous “global crustal displacement” of 2012. But it doesn’t matter. This is the whimper the world ends with, after the bang, whatever it was.

It’s not till after the opening moments of the film that you realize how cruel director John Hillcoat will be (he made the fascinatingly grim Australian western The Proposition a few years back). Images of greenery, of flowers, of sunny days, of a man kissing a horse, of a lovely world… but it’s all The Man dreaming of the lost past and of what will never again be. And then he wakes to reality: the dystopia of dystopias. We are all The Man, incapable of not seeing the old world in an unexpected clean patch of fabric on a sofa in an abandoned house, or in what might be the last can of Coca-Cola that will ever be. We cannot begin to imagine the interior life of The Boy, who was born into this — Charlize Theron (Hancock, Sleepwalking) portrays his mother in flashbacks, and we know he was born after whatever happened happened; this is all The Boy has ever known.

And so is it better to be the one who has to push away memories too painful to remember, or to be the one who never had those memories? There is a sweetness to The Boy that is, perhaps, too optimistic for such a pitiless world: “If he’s not the word of God,” The Man says about his son at one point, “then God never spoke.” Well, and maybe God never did speak, for there is a despair to The Man that is deep and enduring, and cannot help but infect us; it’s hard to see how he could believe in any decent god after what he’s been through. Mortensen is ruthlessly heartbreaking here, and Smit-McPhee simply astonishing (to the point where you have to wonder what they did to the poor kid on the set to make him so convincing as the survivor of global apocalypse). They make the movie — they are the movie, which is not about special FX and destructo porn, all but absent here, but about the terror and the hope, such as it is, of those who endure the stuff that makes up the theme-park thrills of other movies.

It could be worse: the most horrific moment of Cormac McCarthy’s devastating novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] — the one I dreaded to see onscreen — is not here. (Joe Penhall adapted the book for the screen.) But it’s terrible enough. It’s so terrible that the crux of its story comes down to this: Do you dare to hope and to trust in this awful world? Can you imagine that there is anything beyond this, or is that too much to expect?

In most films of anything like this ilk, the hope is a given. Here, you can never be sure whether it’s possible, even during those rare moments when it seems like it might be. It is a precarious and a bold place for a film to leave you.

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