I had the great privilege of attending the US premiere of The Road, opening today in limited release, as part of the AFI Festival earlier this month. I also had the pleasure of sitting across the aisle from one of the film's stars, gorgeous Oscar- winner Charlize Theron, but that's another story/entry.
A powerful film adapted from Cormac McCarthy's powerful apocalyptic novel, The Road is a stylistic polar opposite from the current blockbuster 2012. While I enjoyed 2012 for its mother-of-all-disaster-movie pretensions and amazing special effects, The Road is a far more realistic and, subsequently, more disturbing picture. As a result, The Road is unlikely to gross $400 million+ internationally à la 2012, but it is well worth seeing.
An unspecified disaster has decimated the world and humanity. Food, drinkable water, heat, shelter and medication are all in short supply. The film follows two survivors, a father (Viggo Mortensen, who was also on hand and honored with a retrospective video at the premiere) and young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who — true to the book — are never specified by name, as they struggle to make it through a desolate wilderness populated by bands of other, violent survivors who have resorted to cannibalism. The Road is a far cry from what Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour had in mind back in the 1940's!
Theron appears in occasional flashbacks as the pair's also-nameless wife and mother, who is unable/unwilling to share in her family members' effort to reach the coast. While her role is small and not exactly sympathetic, Theron is haunting in it and makes her presence felt throughout the majority of the film.
Mortensen, a talented man who became an actor via earlier, enduring interests in painting and horse training and made a big splash as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is excellent as a man who would do anything to assure the protection of his child. A scene where he teaches his son to commit suicide with the one remaining bullet in their gun should he fall into the cannibals' hands is disturbing to be sure, but what else would a concerned father do stripped of all other options? I won't be surprised if Mortensen is nominated for the Academy Award for best actor this year in light of his brave, whole-hearted commitment (which includes a pair of nude scenes) to his character's moral and physical desperation.
As the son, Smit-McPhee's inexperience shows at times but he nonetheless gives an effective, affecting performance. Having read the novel, I had pictured the boy a bit younger and sicklier. Director John Hillcoat may have been uncomfortable exposing a younger child to such a dark scenario, although he and screenwriter Joe Penhall wisely eschew a couple of the book's most graphic incidents of inhumanity.
The Road is one of the most faithful translations of a novel to cinema that I've ever seen. Watching it was one of the very rare instances when I felt the film captured the book almost exactly as I had envisioned things while reading it. I wasn't a big fan of the acclaimed No Country for Old Men, also based on a McCarthy novel, largely due to the tortured, fluctuating morality of its characters. While its characters face some ethical conundrums, The Road provides at once a more clear-cut and a more thorough exploration of the darkness — as well as the light — that inhabits the souls of men, women and children alike.
Initially, I felt the movie's hopeful climax was a bit too optimistic, especially in comparison with the book. But then I re-read the novel's finale and confirmed that the film is more faithful than I recalled, despite the addition of a friendly canine.
Go see The Road. See 2012 too, then come back and tell me which you think is the more literate as well as the more realistic of these two, effective doomsday epics.
UPDATE: The Road is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.