Over the years, there have been countless films set in a post-apocalyptic world. I know I have seen my share. There are good ones and bad ones, and ones that are there for no particular reason other than someone thought they would be good. Most of them have some sort of gimmick or higher concept that pushes them forward. I Am Legend has the zombie things, The Postman has the mailman, Mad Max has its cars, and Cyborg has, well, a cyborg. It seems that all of them have something that pushes them away from reality. They all strive for realism, but that is very different than being real. I believe this is because studios want these films to be entertaining. Being real in a post-apocalyptic setting is a disturbing concept that runs the risk of sucking the escape out of the experience and that is not good business for the suits with the funds.
Enter director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) and screenwriter Joe Penhall (Enduring Love). This duo set their eyes on Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road. McCarthy also wrote the novel that became the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. I have not read any of his books, but they seem to be complex works that cannot be easy to adapt to the big screen, although given the right creative team can be terribly effective.
The Road is the story of an unnamed father and son traveling along the road in a post-apocalyptic landscape attempting to survive by any means necessary. It is a film of uncompromising vision. It goes for the jugular and does not let go. This is not to say it is a thrill-a-minute roller coaster ride, but it is one that engages the viewer on an emotional level from the start. It is a slow burn from start to finish with moments of genuine emotion, fear, love, anger, sympathy — the whole range of human feeling is contained within.
The film takes place in the near future after some unspecified disaster (war? meteor? global warming?) leaves the nation (world?) a wasteland. It does not matter what happened, all we need to know is that something did. It takes the wildlife, plants, animals, everything. Gone. Food is scarce and the people that are left wander, scavenging for food, or join roving gangs, or take to cannibalism, or some combination of the above. Father and son are two of the good guys; they struggle to retain what it is that makes them human, carrying the fire that keeps that human part of themselves alive.
Yes, I said cannibalism. No, it is not what you are thinking. We have all seen the post-apocalyptic movies that have a gang of wild-eyed survivors in outfits made of animal furs and leather with their charismatically evil leader who goes about leading his troops to a potential human snack. Here it is more of a mention, an allusion, dealt with in a manner that makes it all the more real.
Therein lies the thing that make The Road so effective. This is an endlessly bleak and depressing film that brings real to its reality. It not only creates its own cinematic reality to exist in, it brings the real world with it. As I left, silently, I could not help but feel that I saw a potential future for our world. The vision that played across the screen felt so genuine. I feel pretty safe in saying that this could be the most realistic portrayal of a post-apocalyptic world ever brought to the screen.
The look is authentic. The sky no longer offers any sunlight, it's perpetually overcast. Whatever happened also brought the demise of flora and fauna. The trees are dead and there are no animals to be found. Cities and towns are burned out husks, roads and highways are crumbling, and when you hear someone else coming, your first thought better be about hiding. You never know who may be coming around the corner.
Aside from the look and the authenticity of the production, it tells an amazing story about father and son trying to survive these harsh conditions. Viggo Mortensen plays the man and Kodi Smitt-McPhee is the boy. The man is stubborn, wary, and protective while the boy (who did not know the world before the apocalypse) is innocent, trusting, and honest. Together they grow, change, and react with and to each other. The relationship is heartbreaking. He so wants to protect his son from the harsh world while preparing him for when he is alone while the boy wants nothing more than to be with his father.
On top of them being the only company they have, we learn a little more via flashbacks where meet mother and wife (Charlize Theron). It is clear something happens to her, which I will not spoil here, suffice to say there is a moment when they must choose to cling to the past or come to grips with it that plays in an achingly quiet fashion that cannot be ignored.
And the performances? Wow. Viggo Mortensen brings such resolute sadness to the nameless man. He is determined to keep moving, keep surviving. However, he recognizes there is no hope, yet still moves forward for the sake of his son who is everything to him. Kodi Smitt-McPhee captures an amazing amount of innocence as he latches onto every piece of hope he can find. The two have such great chemistry that it is easy to believe their relationship and the hard things they have to go through.
One of the things that really cements their relationship is a voiceover early on where the man says that he believes his son to be the voice of God, and if he isn't, then God has never spoken to us at all. I cannot recall the exact line, but the moment and the way it relates to their arc affected me. You will see it when you see the movie.
I sat in the theater transfixed by what was unfolding in front of me. My emotions were destroyed by what did unfold. It is a film that demands to be seen. While it makes that demand, it is not an easy film to watch. This is entertainment, yes, but it is also a character study. It is impossible not to be affected.
Bottom line. This movie gets a little higher in my estimation the more I think about it. It is the sort of movie that has many layers to it. There is always something more to see. It also does not go so far as to tell you everything. You can fill in the blanks of the world around them (similar to Children of Men). John Hillcoat is to be commended for tackling such difficult material and delivering it in such a powerful manner.