Posted on Saturday, January 9th, 2010 at 4:08 pm
Author: Mark Farnsworth
When we watch post-apocalyptic fare like “Dawn Of The Dead” or the “Mad Max” trilogy, we all secretly wish we could be in that situation, just for a little bit. We come out of the cinema thinking: which shopping mall could we hole up in? Where could we get a gun? Should we favour a crossbow? Would I look good in spray painted American football pads with spikes driven through them? The world of these films seems harsh, but survivable. Besides, we wouldn’t make the same mistakes as those dumbass B-movie actors. Would we?
“The Road” is different. There are no zombies to slay or muscle cars to race. The malls are long stripped of anything useful and ammunition is scarce. There are no animals alive and no birds singing in the black and blasted trees. There is only lingering death, masquerading as life. “The Road’s” catastrophic event is unnamed and unforgiving. This is one apocalypse you wouldn’t fantasize about experiencing firsthand.
John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel follows the central premise of a father bitterly fighting to keep his son alive as they head south through ashen America. Their odyssey is unremittingly bleak and survival seems less likely with every minute that burns away. Cannibals prey on the weak and even a simple act of theft is enough to condemn a person to death. The father, played by Viggo Mortensen, keeps two bullets, grimly teaching his son the most effective way to blow his brains out should they be caught.
“When it comes to the boy,” the father narrates, “I only have one question. Can you do it when the time comes?”
Mortensen inflicts his character with an unrelenting determination to keep his boy out of harm’s way even if it means killing him. McCarthy’s book deliberately avoids describing the father and son, but Mortensen fits the bill perfectly. We’ve seen him go to extremes to defend his family before in “A History Of Violence” and lead Frodo to safety in “The Lord Of The Rings.” This is a real-life Aragorn in a world far more perilous than Middle Earth.
McCarthy wrote the novel for his son Francis, as he had become a father in his advanced years. This relationship informs much of the dialogue between the father and son in “The Road.” “You think I come from another world don’t you?” says the father to his son, who was born just after the apocalypse. Most parents feel like that at some point, but the massive age gap between McCarthy and his son makes the question all the more relevant. The terrible knowledge that he may be taken at any moment from his child invests “The Road” with a frantic sense of time draining away.
It also gives the film its most poignant moments. Sitting amongst the smashed remains of several vending machines, the father finds a solitary can of coke and offers it to his son. Savouring it the boy exclaims, “It’s bubbly.” The apocalypse has rendered the Coke the luxury it was always meant to be, not the water replacement it has become. When the son asks, “What would you do if I died?” the father replies, “I’d want to die too.”
As well acted and moving as these intimate exchanges are, they are perhaps unfairly hindered by the greatness of the source material. The genius of McCarthy’s deceptively simple prose and lack of formal dialogue is to make the reader empathize completely with the characters. By giving them a face, their power is diminished even with Hillcoat’s inspired casting of Mortensen, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the boy.
Hillcoat’s visuals are suitably wretched. “That’s exactly how I imagined it” McCarthy himself said. Broken telegraph poles line the streets like crucifixion crosses; a concrete bridge looms ominously, the father turns over a sofa cushion so he can sit on something clean, something simply beautiful. The survivor’s clothes are rancid with grease or stained by black rain from the battleship skies. Shoes are held together by rotting electrical tape and a man’s possessions left on a path amount to nothing more than a rotting pile of rubbish.
Somehow, through the utter devastation, the complete despair scratched into the celluloid, there emerges the slightest shred of a hopeful film. The zealous devotion of the father and the hopeful compassion shown by his son to strangest appears to grant humanity the slimmest of chances. In a society increasingly plagued by absent fathers, it’s refreshing to see a film where one sticks around to see through his parental duties in the most impossible of conditions. When a stranger claims he thought the son was an “angel,” the father replies, “to me he’s a god.”
If all parents worshipped their children like that, the apocalypse might never come knocking.
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