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The Road

The Road

It was grim I tell you, grim as being awake at 5am.

dir: John Hillcoat

Oh gods is this film depressing. It’s not as completely hideous and bleak as the Cormac McCarthy novel from which it takes its name, since it leaves out some of the most horrifying bits. Even without some of that stuff, good goddamn is it depressing.

John Hillcoat has made some grim flicks, like Ghosts… Of the Civil Dead and The Proposition, but this out-grims them all. And as with The Proposition, adding to the bleak landscape and sombre atmosphere is a score created by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Of the soundtracks they’ve done together, well, this is of a piece, and whilst it’s not as powerful as the one they managed for that Jesse James flick whose title was almost longer than its running time, it’s still pretty devastating.

This film mostly has three characters. Sure there are others, but three characters are the majority that we look at and care about. There’s The Man (Viggo Mortensen), there’s The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and then there’s the dead world they walk upon.

This is a post-apocalyptic story with a difference. The difference is that there’s nothing cool or romantic about this devastated place where we spend two hours of our lives and the last days of humanity. Plenty of flicks have been set in some nebulous future setting where nuclear war, robots, a virus, melting icecaps, zombies, evolved monkeys or Michael Bay have been responsible for wiping out human civilisation as we knew it. In almost all of those stories, though, the world left behind might be seriously fucked up and rubble strewn, but there’s still life, of a sort, and as they say, where there’s life, there’s fucking. I mean, where there’s life there’s hope.

The Road posits a world where there will be no redemption, no Hand of God coming down from the heavens to save / kill us, no rebuilding, no preservation of a copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz for future generations, no hope. The world is cold and getting colder, ashen, dead, really dead, and it’s just waiting for its last species to violently expire in order for the whole planet to become as quiet as a global grave can be.

The reason for the apocalypse is never explained, nor does it need to be. All we need to know is that the sky is permanently shrouded in grey, the plants are all dead, all animals are dead, and there’s a few hungry people stumbling about. All civilisation, all of that thin tissue of civility that prevents most people from grabbing their guns and killing their neighbours for whatever reason, is gone.

What, then, is a raggedy man and his raggedy son to do?

They spend most of the film scurrying from place to place, hiding from the gangs of armed cannibals who would look upon them as menu items, and desperately looking for food to eat. Amidst the desperation there is nothing but horror in front of them and behind. The father is entirely in survival mode, viewing everything and anyone as a threat, and in almost every instance he is right. Every moment that seems like there’s a moment of lightness or levity is swamped immediately afterward by the grim reality that their situation is no better than it was before or will be moments from now.

The boy, being a boy, hasn’t let the grimness of their lot in life warp him completely, as it has the father. The boy still has hope, still hopes that there might be people who they can be kind to: that’s it’s not all kill-or-be-killed.

Of course, considering the situation, it is kill-or-be-killed in 99 per cent of cases, but the story’s point is not to let it completely swamp you. He asks his father if they’re still the good guys in a world in which it seems like they might be the last ones. Of course his father, who has to do some pretty awful things to ensure their survival, reassures him they’re the good guys.

It might seem like a pointless question in a context where you’re desperately trying to defend your young son from gangs of hungry, monstrous killers and rapists, but the flick makes its case well. If these two can’t retain their last shreds of humanity as the world around them descends into complete barbarism, then there wouldn’t be any point to their survival, and there wouldn’t be any point in our watching a flick about them.

Being post-apocalyptic, the look of the flick is as devastating as this review is probably making the plot sound. An utterly bleak, blasted, destroyed world is the one they walk across. It makes, and excuse me for mentioning anything as geeky as a computer game in a film review, the green-tinged and dusty rubble from Fallout 3 look positively kaleidoscopic by comparison. Not a hint of sun, barely any colour to greet the eye, except brief flashes ever more rarely as it goes on. Most, of course, come from flashbacks or from the brief moments of respite they get to enjoy.

Their first meeting, from our perspective, with a gang who are looking for fresh flesh, sets the tone for every other encounter. In that first meeting of the minds, we see an enterprising young chap (Garret Dillahunt, who will be playing psychos until the day he dies) trying to convince the Man that his gun-toting gang will do right by him and his son. Problem is, though, the enterprising young lad can’t help looking at the Boy like he doesn’t know which to do first on his menu of torments. And the Man knows full well what will happen to them both in only a few minutes time.

When later on the Man and Boy find a house with a setup that seems just too good to be true, after weeks of starvation, where they have shelter, the chance for a bath, and oodles of cans of food, something seems to be trapped in the cellar. Lots of somethings, who could only really be there for a singular purpose.

The horror I feel just recounting that sequence is probably more elaborated-upon because I’ve read the book, and I have a far clearer idea of much of what is implied in the film, but goddamn am I still horrified. It’s no less chilling because of it.

This is not an action film, or a fast paced film, or even really a horror film in any sense of the phrase. It’s a grim mood piece which mostly just follows two people making their way across a landscape. I can’t even imagine who they thought the audience for this would be. I can tell you right now: there’s no audience for this flick. It should probably never have been made into a flick.

I’m not saying that it’s not a good film, if good has any relevance in this context. It is a well-made flick, a powerful flick as well, but I’m not sure if there’s much for people to take away from it apart from the obvious fact that parents will often go above and beyond the call of duty to protect their kids from cannibals and rapists, which might come as a surprise to beings unfamiliar with our species.

I’m not going to pretend the following is original thinking on my part: years ago after I read McCarthy’s The Road, I happened to also read a piece by Michael Chabon comparing The Road to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead,where he delved into what he thought compelled McCarthy to write such a bleak story. McCarthy’s written grim stuff before, like Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, but The Road out-grims even those premier pieces of nihilism.

The idea arises from the fact that, later in life a bunch of years ago, McCarthy, who’s nearly 80 now, became a father. I’m not sure if it was ‘again’ or for the first time in his life. The relevant aspect is that, considering McCarthy’s age, he would or could have felt that his son was probably not going to enjoy having his dad around for much of his life. When a man in his late sixties – early seventies has a kid, I can understand that a unique terror may overcome him which transcends just the usual horror of grasping one’s own mortality. It’s the sure knowledge that no matter what you do, pretty soon you’re going to leave your young kid helpless and undefended in a harsh world that you’ll no longer be able to protect them from.

The Road is that terror, that feeling of helplessness in the face of certain and absolute doom, expanded out and applied to the whole world, which might as well be dying too. It’s the worst case scenario to transcend all worst case scenarios, yet even then, even amidst this absolute of horrors, for whatever reasons, McCarthy thankfully lets us off the hook, with there being a tiny sliver of hope at the end. The tiniest. Perhaps so tiny, so fleeting that perhaps it’s not even really hope, it’s just a little cul-de-sac on the unavoidable journey towards oblivion.

But it’s there, for those who fear drowning completely in this dead sea of misery.

This isn’t a flick where the acting matters that much, since anyone can look dirty and trudge forlornly through a constructed wasteland, but it helps that Viggo is so horribly believable as a man desperately trying to keep it together. His scenes towards the end of the flick break my heart just thinking about them. The kid does a reasonable job as well, but all he has to do is look like a kid in a horrible setting, and he manages that fine. He is soul of the film, hoping against all hope that he and his dad aren’t going to become like the monsters around them. He’s great in a scene with a very old man (Robert Duval), where the father can’t switch off his understandable caution, or with a thief (Michael K. Williams, better known as the sublime Omar from The Wire), where the son screams for the father to show some mercy. He’s also convincing at the end, at the very end, when even all that they have left to them seems lost.

The scenery and the setting are too overwhelming, too convincing, too utterly horrible for the audience, I think, to handle. I’m not going to argue as to whether it’s immersive, whether the audience can be drawn in by it, but I have to say that I found this to be a far more convincing flick than Avatar, and yet The Road’s box office returns and budget wouldn’t cover the amount of money James Cameron is going to spend on prostitutes for the rest of this financial year.

Still, part of me wonders whether the makers thought there’s a market for this kind of masochism in general, concerning the range of depressing material out there, or whether they thought it was Oscar-bait because of the treatment or the nature of the material. Either way, I can’t imagine a lot of people going out of their way to immerse themselves in such a horribly depressing construction. I might have gotten something out of the whole, sad experience, but I’d rather not spend any more time in Cormac McCarthy’s skull.

8 times happy endings sometimes aren’t as happy as they might seem out of 10

“If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different. And so I have you... I have you.” – The Road.