The Road ****
A few weeks ago, with the release of post apocalyptic action thriller The Book of Eli I complained about how I had not been able to see The Road, the post apocalyptic film that had been released in cinemas just a week earlier, due to the absence of any cinemas anywhere near me actually showing it. Well, its three weeks late, but finally we have it here. I noted before how The Book of Eli is a more generic action thriller type film, tending to put the focus more on action than on characters and story (although the latter did indeed have a significant role as well). In some ways, The Road is the natural opposite to that film. While it is still set in a bleak post apocalyptic world, the film – based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, whose novel No Country For Old Men was adapted into an Oscar winning film by the Coen Brothers – is much more focused on characters than it is on action and consequently the film has received a much more positive response from film critics, not to mention getting significant awards buzz, even if the box office performance has been poor at best (this could be attributed to a lack of cinemas actually showing it though). Pre-release hype may not have been huge but it has suggested a film that impresses so, with its focus on emotion rather than action, does The Road deliver as promised, or is little more than an interesting companion piece to The Book of Eli?
The world has become a post apocalyptic wasteland. A father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smitt-McPhee) are struggling across the barren, dystopian landscape, heading towards the coast in the hope of escaping the increasing cold of the seemingly endless and unrelenting winter. There’s very little life left, less food and the only weapon they have to protect themselves is a pistol with two bullets. At night, the man dreams of his wife (Charlize Theron), who killed herself before their journey began. Each morning, he coughs up blood as a mystery illness begins to take hold. As they continue towards the sea, the father must continue to protect his son against exposure, starvation and terrifying, murderous gangs – sustained only by the blind hope that they’ll find a better life at the end of their journey.
Comparisons between The Road and The Book of Eli are inevitable (there’s even a character called Eli in The Road – the only named character in the film) so I will get them out of the way first. The Book of Eli could easily be described as a case of style over substance. With The Road we have the precise opposite, more a case of substance over style. The film lacks the visual panache and (understandably due to a much lower budget) the epic scale of Eli – although the post apocalyptic word depicted still, on occasion, manages to impress, also seeming more realistic at times – but makes up for this with its richly developed central characters, who are the constant focus throughout. First and foremost this is a character piece, a simple tale of a father and son desperately trying to survive in a dying world, and in this regard the film is a rousing success. Not only is the film moving, but it will bring you to tears at points, and this emotion is the heart of the film, present in the writing, the direction and, perhaps most importantly, the acting. Driven by pure emotion, the performances of Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smitt-McPhee are absolutely superb and truly heartbreaking. The father-son dynamic completely convinces and their suffering is both believable and draws our sympathies. When they get their few good breaks we genuinely feel happy along with them. They are the heart and soul of the film and focus never moves away from them for a moment. This film is not about the apocalypse – in fact the actual ‘event’ is never shown or explained – nor is it about the post apocalypse – we only see brief glimpses of anything other than forest or shoreline – it is about these two people and their struggle to simply survive. This is where the film gets its edge. The rest of the cast also impress, although Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall (as the aforementioned Eli) and Guy Pearce only get very limited screen time. For all the heart and emotion of the film’s protagonists, however, it should be noted that, while this film may be moving, it is not very uplifting. Hopelessly depressing for the most of the running time, it is so bleak that even Eli seems like a feel good movie by comparison. So, while The Road is indeed a very well made film and a very moving one, be warned that it is not a film to see if you are looking for entertainment or escapism, only if you want some serious food for thought.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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