What is it about the apocalypse that's so damned depressing, people? Didn't anybody take anything from Weird Al Yankovic's "Christmas at Ground Zero?" Well, not from the lyrics, maybe, but from the jolly tune that accompanied it? Shamefully, I cop to not having read Cormac McCarthy's celebrated novel, The Road, but I've seen the movie now. (At least, I think it's over.) It's not disappointing as a feature, but I blindly call it disappointing as an adaptation. McCarthy's drearily beautiful prose is never boring, but John Hillcoat's The Road often is, though it's a depressing kind of boring, like a burn-ward waiting room.
In this century, Viggo Mortenson's characters have yet to lack balls of absolute steel. This continues here, though the rest of him has been driven to rib-bearing starvation. In The Road, he excels as The Father (if only because he has to), playing a post-masculine nomad trekking his son, The Son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), through a ravaged nation. Years earlier, an unspecified force of monumental devastation crossed the planet, leaving behind survivors without much reason to survive. This vague approach works because nothing gets beaten down with details. In a flashback scene, orange light is filtered in through the windows, so I assume The Big Event was fire, though little on the outside shows signs of this.
As if global annihilation weren't bad enough, it occurs while The Mother (Charlize Theron) is pregnant with The Son. This will probably create the most radical generation gap known to man. A lack of plentiful food and medicine creates tension and preempts a healthy upbringing, though the child is loved and cared for. This backstory I’ve presented is given in short scenes dispersed amongst all the scenes where The Father and Son are walking or running. These bits carry most of the color in the movie. Besides these and other choice moments, the screen is filled with lots of greys and browns. Unfortunately, the plot progression is approached in the same drab manner.
The landscape the Father and Son travel across is vast and mostly empty, but at any moment, the threat of crazed rapist/cannibal groups is always prevalent. These people are past the edge of casual manners, and see nothing wrong with forcefully mating with their dinner. (It’s only a matter of time before Alive gets a reboot.) Despite the existence of opposing forces, along with the ever-present fight against starvation, the tension in The Road is sporadic at best. The briefest of moments raise the stakes, either emotionally or physically, but deflate soon after. I understand that it’s a personal, introspective story about parental love, but it’s saying something when a movie makes me want something more exciting than overly horny people-eaters.
Along the way, we’re introduced to The Old Man (Robert Duvall), a derelict whom The Son sympathizes with, and temporarily cares for. Duvall’s appearance is ghastly, but effective. In fact, all of the make-up in this movie is extremely convincing, none more so than with another character, The Last Man (Guy Pearce), who was so unkempt I actually thought it was an uglier guy who looked amazingly like Guy Pearce. These and other smaller roles carry curiosity with them, although I consider The Last Man’s short scene an undermining of many previous scenes. I’ll keep it to myself, but someone’s bound to agree with me.
So, this is far from the de-populated Earths that usually show up in apocalyptic cinema. There's no Will Smith to battle horribly rendered CGI monsters. Mortenson does a fine job of being the Will Smith-in-a-drama driving force, and he portrays almost too well a man who has lost everything but the will to see his son survive. He refers to The Son as his god a few times, and I’m not quite sure of why that is; especially when The Son is kind of a brat. I’ll never understand what it’s like to live like they do, God willing, but Smit-Mcphee’s performance is too fractured. He’s convincingly ballsy half the time, and convincingly impish for the rest. The problem is in the amount of dialogue he’s given, which was necessary due to the small cast, but that fact does not make me any more appreciative.
Once you get beyond petty things like story and character, you’ll find that The Road has a lot going for it, and I’m using only 10% sarcasm. As far as mood-making is concerned, it’s all here. The muted colors, empty landscapes, somber score from Nick Cave, filthy make-up, and decrepit locations, on top of the emotional undertones, are a bombardment of melancholy that isn’t enjoyable per se, but is certainly effective.
Mood isn’t the only ingredient in movie-making, however, and The Road suffers for it. It’s almost against my better judgment to recommend it. I feel I’d have to preface it by saying, “Hey, my intentions aren’t concerned with making you suicidal, but can you spare two hours of your time?” There are many interesting elements that deserve more time, and too many uninteresting ones that show up too often. I just can’t wait to not get back on The Road again.
The DVD release mirrors the movie itself: enjoyable, but one time only. Five deleted scenes don't make you miss their presence. One of them directly references The Father's explanation to The Son that the Southern coast is their destination, as it will be some kind of haven, even though he himself doesn't believe this. Not quite breached fully in the film, it references a scene with The Mother. To me, it still seems like they were walking for walking's sake, instead of staying where the staying was good.
The 13-minute making-of documentary is frothy and back-pattingly light. Everybody loves Cormac. Everybody loves Viggo. Everybody loves director John Hillcoat. We get it. Where's the one for people who only liked everyone involved?
Hillcoat's commentary is the default standout of the features. It's fairly wordy and never drifts into absolute dullness. His passion for the project really comes across, and I respect the odds he faced to adapt the book. He also points out a lot of the locations where things were filmed, which is normally a blah thing directors mention, but which adds something here. He chose locations based on their terrible conditions, due to economic or environmental causes. I'd have guessed more stage props would have been used. Kudos, guys. You've made a fine-looking film.