The Road, 2
Director: John Hillcoat
USA, 2009, 119mins, rated 15
Screening: The Phoenix, 8 January 2010
That Hollywood has finally discovered Cormac McCarthy is a timely honour to this great American writer; but what took it so long to see the cinematic potential of his work? One of the most consistent and critically-lauded contemporary authors, McCarthy has burrowed deep into the American psyche over his 45 year writing career. And yet it’s only within the last five that the movie industry has noticed how perfect his simply drawn characters, grand themes of alienation, conflict and loss, and dramatically visual prose are for adaptation to the big screen.
Although it’s a departure from the revisionist Western settings of McCarthy’s previous four novels, the scope, characters and themes of The Road are universal and the narrative inherently cinematic. To make it work well on screen, a director with a strong visual style was vital. It must have been quite a gamble choosing Australian John Hillcoat, who only has one other feature under his belt (2005’s The Proposition), but, artistically at least, the gamble paid off.
The Road is set in the not too distant future and follows the plight of a father and son dealing with a world that has suffered a dreadful, unspecified, cataclysm. With their surroundings reduced to a desolate wasteland devoid of virtually all life, and with their fellow survivors forming into cannibalistic hunting packs, the pair head south towards the coast with the hope of finding some sort of salvation from the bleak emptiness of their day-to-day struggle.
What sets The Road apart from other post-apocalyptic films is the graphically naturalistic way in which the aftermath is portrayed. The film is shot mainly on location, and special mention has to be given to the work of Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, whose haunting photography helps give the film its authentic feel. The majority of the camera work is suffocatingly close, giving the shots a claustrophobic feel that replicates the oppressive clouds of ash described in the book. When there are occasional wide or long shots, the landscapes are morbid, bleak and infertile, dominated by blankets of thick dark cloud.
Filmed through the winter in Pennsylvania, Oregon and Louisiana (including parts of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans), there is a stark natural trauma to nearly all The Road’s shots. The sense of doom is heightened by the washed-out and underexposed lighting, which reduces the colours to dull tones and the light to a torpid haze. To complement the bleak look, sound design is also used to great effect. In a technique that’s been best exploited by David Lynch over the years, The Road uses an almost constant background mix of rumbling, crackling and tearing sounds, giving the unnerving sense that the very earth outside the frame is breaking apart. Conversely, one of my criticisms would be the choice of music. Not only did I find Nick Cave’s score a touch too apparent, I thought the need for music was entirely unnecessary.
The narrative of the road is subtly paced, with much of the scenario being either inferred or hinted at through flashback scenes. It is left to some short, sharp sequences of very tense action and the strength of the actors to keep the film moving. Coming from a relatively inexperienced director, the performances in The Road are particularly impressive. Viggo Mortensen, playing the father, is especially convincing, conveying with a desperate intensity the tortured sufferings of a man whose world has been torn apart. Beaten down and reduced to living like a hunted animal, the father has lost much of his pride, but must keep strength for his son. Torn between the urge to survive and protect, or the choice of ending his and his son’s further suffering (as we see others have done) is a constant mental battle for him.
Obviously The Road is not a feel good movie, but don’t let that put you off. Certainly it’s heart-wrenching and often very distressing, but it’s also exceptionally well made and a beautifully constructed fable. Handled with sensitivity, honesty and taste, The Road is a very rewarding movie that raises numerous questions about our future as both a species and a civilisation. By showing us what we stand to lose, it hopes to make us appreciate what we’ve got. That there is no grand conclusion, merely a glimmer of hope in the continuation of ‘the fire’, makes this film all the more thought provoking as a story, and refreshing as a piece of cinema.
by William Thomas