As a glimpse of a post-apocalypic future, The Road, directed by John Hillcoat with a script by Joe Penhall, could yet be regarded as a cinematic cousin of Waiting for Godot. While Vladimir and Estragon wait fruitlessly for a Godot that never arrives, the Man and the Boy set out on a journey “south” that seems to have no end. In both cases the days seem full of endless repetition with only the occasional encounter to enliven proceedings.
The landscape in The Road is beyond bleak, ash falls from the sky thanks to fires that never seem to go out and earthquakes are frequent. There is no vegetation, no animal life and, seemingly, no hope. Yet, through this desolation the Man and the Boy plod, day after depressing day. They pick up what food they can, mostly mouldy, water is heated and sieved through socks. The Man (superb performance by Viggo Mortensen) seems to shrink visibly day-by-day as he tries to steer his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from childhood to adult – a retrieved comic gives way to a gun with one bullet and the unmistakable inference that, if he has to, he must use on himself.
While most of the population appears to have died, the father and son manage to meet up with various pieces of detritus, most of whom are hostile, such as the gangs of maraudering cannibals with a taste for young flesh. The Father and Son break into a house that could be the one owned by the family from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where rounded up survivors are now being farmed for food.
They encounter Ely (Robert Duvall), a typically cantankerous old man of the west who denounces God and clings to life and hope. A thief (Michael K. Williams) steals their pitiful possessions but has the tables turned. In both cases the Boy reminds the Man that just because society has broken down it doesn’t mean that basic humanity can be forgotten. The Son lives up to the ideal that the Father has instilled in him – to carry the fire of hope inside – even as the Father falls into despair.
The film is not quite relentlessly depressing. The Man has flashbacks to a happier time with his pregnant Wife (Charlize Theron) just before the world turns bad. But as the Father and Son travel down the road the flashbacks get darker until the fateful day that sets them out on their epic journey. The real uplift comes from the relationship between the Man and the Boy as they struggle to survive in an uncompromising world. Their love for each other is truly unconditional and mutually dependent. The film explores how this relationship is created, strengthened and ultimately tested. The scene in the house of cannibals, with the Father prepared to shoot the Son rather than let him become a victim, is both deeply moving and deeply disturbing.
Smit-McPhee has real ability, he is able to portray some strong emotional bonds without sliding into saccharine cliché. Mortensen is the strong, watchful and practical leader it is around the Boy that the film revolves. While the outdoor fires rage and ash falls it is the fire of hope that the Boy carries within that is the ultimate theme of The Road.There is a compelling scene where he asks a father (Guy Pearce) if he, too, has the fire inside.
The film is by no means perfect. Smit-McPhee is a little too clean and his teeth a little too perfect for someone who has grown up knowing nothing but a lack of food and clean water. The music, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, is appropriately melancholic but it is overused, a complaint that applies to most modern film compositions. Equally, the episodic nature of the narrative may not be to everyone’s taste. But these are minor quibbles. This is a film to witness on the big screen but there will be rewards from repeated viewing when the DVD is released.
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