The Road (review)

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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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Wed, Nov 25, 2009 1:33am

Well done, MaryAnn, and thank you: I was so dreading that moment — yeah, that one — that I was debating whether I could watch the movie at all. Which is not an internal debate I should be having when the counter-argument is a) Mortensen doing b) McCarthy. Glad I can leave that image in written-word memory. Though now I’m not sure that helps; I know what my mind saw.

Wed, Nov 25, 2009 6:21am

I’m both intrigued and terrified to know what this image is that you don’t want to actually see. It seems like a strange kind of punishment to want to go read this book just for that.

Wed, Nov 25, 2009 6:39am

I’d take a guess at the scene she didn’t want to see on screen, but then I’d have to write about it. But for the record, I couldn’t put the book down. I’m just not sure I want to pick it back up again.

Wed, Nov 25, 2009 9:31am

The horrific scene in the book she is referring to is probably a very specific scene of a delicious snack being prepared.

Nathan C.
Nathan C.
reply to  JoshDM
Tue, Nov 04, 2014 10:50pm

*shudders* I know the one…

Wed, Nov 25, 2009 9:49am

Magess (spoiler from the book)

Did you ever see Austin Powers 2, you know, the one with Fat Bastard? Do you remember how he was telling Mini-Me to ‘get in my belly!’.
Now… take all the humor, well anything even remotely funny and skip ahead a few moments to how FB would go about this in an apocolyptic world and you ‘might’ have an idea.

Wed, Nov 25, 2009 12:17pm

I thought the basement scene was pretty rough. I’m curious to see how they handled that in the film.

Wed, Nov 25, 2009 12:30pm

I just can’t dredge up any interest in seeing this.

bats :[
bats :[
Wed, Nov 25, 2009 5:47pm

Good review. Not seeing it. Sorry.

Marcel F. Williams
Wed, Nov 25, 2009 9:34pm

A heartbreaking journey of a father and son desperate to survive in the harshest post-apocalyptic world ever imagined!

Viggo Mortensen and 12 year old Kodi Smit-McPhee (where do the Australians get all of these great young actors?) both deserve Oscar nods, IMO. In fact, I’d also give an Oscar nod to Robert Duvall for his brief but powerful performance as ‘the old man’. The cinematography is outstanding and the environment that they created is devastatingly realistic.

This is an important film that deserves to be nominated for Best Picture of the year.

This is clearly some sort of cataclysmic nuclear winter or asteroid impact winter scenario. The film not only tells me that we need to protect the Earth’s environment but we also need to expand our civilization beyond the Earth as soon as possible in order to preserve our civilization and our species!

Marcel F. Williams

Thu, Nov 26, 2009 3:08pm

Great review, now i gotta see it.
BTW this comment site has less hoops to jump through
than others to post.

Sat, Nov 28, 2009 8:20am

This is a fair bit harder to watch than Children of Men?

Sun, Nov 29, 2009 9:29am

(spoiler for end credit music)

“The Way” by Fastball: I was (pleasantly) surprised to hear that one and thought it was rather fitting… but then there was the Willie Nelson… I couldn’t help but think that the Alamo Drafthouse was having a little fun with us. Is the Willie really there? Good choice only as a joke, but definitely broke the mood. Both local (Austin) artists, btw.

Laurie Mann
Sun, Nov 29, 2009 9:53pm

I loved the book The Road.

I liked and respected the movie The Road but did not love it (I’d rank it 7.5 out of 10). Like Marianne, I’d really like to see it again.

Josh – “snack” – well, that’s one way to look at it. I know that scene was filmed but it was not included. You also never see a pregnant woman anywhere in the movie (except for some flashbacks of Mother).

I actually thought the most disgusting scene was near the end of the movie. The cannibalism didn’t bother me too much, as it was all off-camera.

The acting is what really carries this movie. Mortensen was stupendous, and Smit-McPhee (who, remember, was not using his regular accent during the movie – he’s Australian) was a real find.

Wed, Dec 02, 2009 7:08pm

About the “then God never spoke” line…


The book/movie is more or less a Christian allegory (and I say this as a McCarthy fan who is not a believer). Not only is the boy referred to as the Word of God, but he is also anointed/baptized more than once. When the father says that the boy is not the one who has to worry, the boy replies, “I am the one!” This line is not an accident. The boy is also preceded on the road by the old man, Ely, which is a pretty clear reference to Elijah, the prophet that will precede the Messiah.

The way I read the book, the father represents a kind of survivalist, Old Testament, eye for an eye kind of morality while the boy is generous and forgiving like our ideal image of Christ. I think McCarthy imagines a kind of Gnostic Christ that existed before the world was made and will exist after the world is undone.

Just something to think about before you see it again.

I liked the movie and thought it was a fair treatment of the book, though the very end was a little too idyllic. I would have liked the very ending of the book to have made the movie at least as a voice over.