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Rick McGrath [Film Festival 09.13.09] post apocalyptic movie review drama



Year: 2009
Directors: John Hillcoat
Writers: Joe Penhall & Cormac McCarthy
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Rick McGrath
Rating: 10 out of 10

This is only the second time I’ve given a score of 10 for a film, and this one receives this honor almost solely on the fact it’s taken me five jangly hours to get over just how stupendously brutal this hyper-realistic film is, and how deeply we’ve all misjudged the apparent strength of society and culture.


Based on the highly-acclaimed 2007 Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, The Road is a sort of philosophic horror film with a slightly optimistic ending. The topic under discussion ultimately may be about the survival of humans in general, but it certainly is about the survival of any kind of humanity in a world where force and cunning and paranoia rule. This multi-level story gives us two things to think about: the post-apocalyptic world is an environmental disaster; the post-apocalyptic world invites only the most basic emotions. The former is the setting, the latter the drama.

Here’s how it comes together: a stupendous cataclysm rocks the earth. All birds and animals are dead, as are all trees and plant life. Every day is grey, and getting greyer. It’s cold, and getting colder. It doesn’t take a genius to deduce this is either a nuclear winter, or the aftermath of a huge, unexpected meteor crash. Not good. Through a seamless flow of action shots and flashbacks, usually told in unsettled dreams, we discover our heroes -- an unnamed man and his son -- are heading along a road that will take them to the east coast of the southern US. It’s about 10-12 years after the disaster, and they can no longer stay at their northern home. Mom committed suicide sometime after the boy’s birth, which coincided with the catastrophe. Not surprisingly, travel is dangerous because society has had a long time to break down, and the road is patrolled by roving bands of militia and the woods by gangs of cannibals. Not a friendly situation. However, like any good road movie, our team of “good guys” slowly make their way along and one by one encounter situations dangerous, emotionally moving, humorous, and philosophic as their journey progresses.

The main action, however, is between father and son, not between toy soldiers on trucks and Texas chainsaw cannibals hiding in country mansions. Dad is in full survival mode, but the son, who really hasn’t seen anyone outside of his father, is naturally friendly and trusting, and what we hear between these two as the story progresses is a combination of verbal pact-making and lessons from dad on how to be paranoid and if necessary, suicidal. Their gun only has one bullet left, and the son will be the one to get it if they are ever caught… by anyone. This bleak instruction proves both undoable and ultimately unnecessary, but it shows the heights – or depths – to which a father will go to protect his son from any possible atrocities in a lawless world. That’s their theme – they represent humanity in a devolved inhumane culture, a society based on warlords, on instinct, on the brutal acts the madness of starvation can bring. The movie’s question is: how long can it last?

The second theme – a killer environment – is the story’s continual backdrop of lightning-riddled clouds, endless rain, dead forests, dead everything, all covered with a mortuary-white layer of pervasive ash. Years without the sun has killed everything. No philosophy here, folks. Just the most visually depressing earth you’ll ever see and a stunning visualization of what happens with the failure of the interdependent ecosystem. And it could happen. Lesson over.

The acting is generally superb, and why not, with Viggo Mortensen as the father, Charlize Theron as the wife, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the boy. Mortensen is great as the dying dad, subtly moving from simply protective to desperately concerned as the road continually leads nowhere good and his health is failing. He knows his son is not yet hardened against humanity, but he’s also torn by fears of pushing him into the crazy paranoid abyss. Mortensen expresses these conflicts beautifully an offers up a truly believable and compelling performance of a man in a truly cruel situation. Theron, unfortunately, plays the depressed mother – “I lost my heart when he was born” – and only appears in the father’s dream flashbacks. Her big scene is the walking out into the night suicide moment, and otherwise she lounges around in eye candy casual wear as dad dreams of their early days. She also represents those who simply give up, who see death as a salvation, not something to be feared in the face of the really fearsome. Smit-McPhee is surprisingly good as the son. He, too, becomes a different person by the end of the story – in some ways, his own person – and this change from kid to young adult is well done. One of the surprising cameos is Robert Duval, who appears briefly in the only named role as Eli. Plastered in makeup as to make him virtually unrecognizable, only the voice remains in this one humorous instance in the story. Eli is the first to receive human concern from the boy, however, and dad’s initial rejection of this generosity reveals not only his depth of inhumanity, but the first instance of moral opposition from the boy. An interesting scene.

Director John Hillcoat works wonders with Joe Penhall’s adaptation of McCarthy’s novel. The action moves ahead briskly, we’re not bogged down by too many or too long father-son pact scenes, and the use of flashbacks is superb, worked in as they are as the father’s dreams and daydreams, adroitly filling in the space between endless grey light. The Road’s two hours fly by effortlessly as Hillcoat drags you into this hopeless otherworld and continually beats you with increasing despair. You find yourself asking: would I put up with this?

The camerawork is divine. Shot at a number of incredibly visual locations, including the very Ballardian abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike, the road they travel is dotted with death and destruction, rotted corpses, abandoned cities, all the detritus of a land scavenged to death. The feel is very gritty, cold and grey – perfect foil for the hot and dangerous humans still left alive.

The Road. It’s a trip nobody would ever want to take. Is Culture a mask? Yes. Is Society a form of trust? Yes. Can both survive a devolution to the instinctual level? Perhaps. The ending is a sort of test of your optimism meter. I’m betting your needle goes way too high. Not a good plan when the dust comes down. See this amazing movie if you can… it’s The Road into choices from hell.

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Anonymous (10 years ago) Reply

Excellent review!

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Hussman (10 years ago) Reply

Well written. I cannot wait to see this on Octob-- oh wait.

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dame (10 years ago) Reply

must see it now!
when does this come out?!?!!

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MEGAT0N (10 years ago) Reply

What was the other perfect 10?

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bad dog (10 years ago) Reply

good review. i am hoping i like the movie as much as liked the book. i saw a few clips from the movie, and associated them so strongly with the book they actually bored me. that's what i get for reading the book several times. but clips obviously doesn't do a movie justice. i've got to see the whole thing, which i will.

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Damob (10 years ago) Reply

I smell oscars. No wonder they're delaying it. It sure as hell wont make much money. I almost hope someone leaks it but,dear god I want to see it in the Cinema

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Live for Films (10 years ago) Reply

Brilliant review.

I am so looking forward to seeing this film. Can't wait.

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Wilcoy (10 years ago) Reply

Great review, excellent job. I'll be sure to mention your review this week at blogtalkradio on The Afteramth Show Tuesday.

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agentorange (10 years ago) Reply

When I read the book, the sense of paranoia was almost overwhelming and it's something I really hoped would make its way into the film. This review has made me extremely excited to see this film again.

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Joel (10 years ago) Reply

thank you for this amazing review, very well written. cannot wait til November.

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anonymous (10 years ago) Reply

Just saw this film at TIFF, excellent review, spot on! Mortensen is superb & supporting cast also good. Worth a viewing, not quite as depressing as it is billed. Don't let the trailer confuse you on this one, it's a mis-marketing thing.

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Anonymous (10 years ago) Reply

Good job Rick. It sounds very similar to the book which is all I hoped for really.

However, seeing as the book scared me half to death and there's no way I'd read it again, I'm wondering if I actually want to see the film now...

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rickmcgrath (10 years ago) Reply

Thanks, all... it's one heckuva story that, when I think more about it, is a sort of 21st century version of TS Eliot's The Waste Land. What starts with a bang ends with a whimper. I've only now watched the trailer (duh), and anonymous is right: it contains scenes which aren't actually in the flick, and suggests it's more of an endless battle with bad guys than a study of humanity under severe distress.

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Anonymous (10 years ago) Reply

I'm really glad the trailer isn't representative of the film.

In many ways it's a subtle book and I was worried Hollywood would want to overcomplicate the film with reasons for the disaster on one side, and oversimplify the message on the other by reducing it to a plain old story of overcoming adversity. Sounds like they haven't.

Great review Rick. It's the first review I've read where I've been able to infer whether I'll like the film or not!

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Laurie Mann (10 years ago) Reply

I delighted (but not that surprised really) to hear that you liked it and the filmmakers/actors aren't the ones to have really screwed up on this movie.

Movies released in October also get Oscar nods. The idea that this movie must come out in November/December "for their consideration" is silly. Yes, I know the marketing folks may finally have read the book/seen the whole movie and figured out that the story is really about the father and son's journey. Still, releasing a movie with strong subplots of starvation and cannabalism over Thanksgiving weekend is bizarre in the extreme.

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Anonymous (10 years ago) Reply

"...how deeply we’ve all misjudged the apparent strength of society and culture."

Speak for yourself!

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Anonymous (10 years ago) Reply

I'd try lowering your expectations folks. Though if Atonement and Slumdog can get oscar praise, maybe you should reserve this one in your Oscar pool now.

Personally, I saw this last night and it didn't quite get there for me.

I would say the movie was delayed this near full year to do exactly what this review does... drum up hype. In fact, Hillcoat did all but say exactly that during Q&A when questioned about the release delay.

Ultimately I feel this movie has the same problems any film that tries to be too faithful to an acclaimed source material. That problem is brutaly obvious to those who have never read the source material, but invisible to those who have.

What's on the screen isn't enough and readers of the book have the opportunity to fill in the blanks from their previous experience. I think largely what happens is they're simply very excited to see their imagination visualized. The Catch-22 being the director doesn't want a screenplay that will take artistic license to better serve the medium of film in fear of the inevitable backlash from the book readers.

Still, Cinematography and Art Direction are brilliant. It looked like a live action "Fallout 3". Viggo is solid, but the inclusion of Duvall and Pierece and Molly Parker and even to a lesser extent Michael K Williams (Omar Little from "The Wire") were very distracting. Anyone could have played any of those parts, and the fact they stuck names in those very limited (they're cameos) and ultimately disposable roles took me out of the film. Viggo was transparent though. Not quite Sean Penn, but damned close. Oh and while talking immersion, lets not forget the Coke scene ("When you've had a long day on the road of post-apocalyptic despair, reach for a luke-warm Coke-a-Cola"). Or the cheetos. Uuuugh.

Chances to build up heavy tension were thwarted in two scenes. The character of the wife/mother is almost a throwaway other than to serve an example of the people who took the "easy way out", though that is addressed already in another scene.

Maybe a 3.5 out of 5, and even that feels generous to me. 10 out of 10 is lunacy, this is not a perfect film.

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bad dog (10 years ago) Reply

LET THIS SERVE AS A NOTICE to anybody visiting who has anything to do with making PA and zombie movies:

We want character-driven films. Films that know how to separate backdrop from character, and use action to enhance the film instead of simply fulfilling a formula for so much this, so much that.

We want good writing. Good scripts. Real stories. Great attention to detail in the look, feel, tone, scenery. AND PA stuff and zombies.

This does not take a big budget. It just takes care.

Produce this and you will become legend with the PA community. Give us Jar Jar Binks and we may watch your film but won't remember it a week later.

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bad dog (10 years ago) Reply

(PS I mean the above rant btw in support of the film, not against it)

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Laz (9 years ago) Reply

I saw the road about two weeks ago and it has been with me since, so much so that I started seeking similar interests and came across this website. This is possibly one of the scariest films I have seen, in part because it is, as you say, hyper-realistic in its possibilities. This movie is an occasional nightmare I have--truly frightening.

Good review--thanks


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