The Road (2009) dir. John Hillcoat
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron
By Alan Bacchus
It’s difficult not to put extraordinarily high expectations on a picture this. Here’s the pedigree – a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, from the author of ‘No Country For Old Men’, made by the director of the particularly brutal and blood thirsty Aussie-Western ‘The Proposition’ about a violent post-apocalyptic world. So for people who expect John Hillcoat to go medieval on this story, his minimalist rendering might jar some.
Being a new father to a son (9 weeks!), the film resonates most powerfully as a story of family, put under the most extreme circumstances, and specifically the need for one’s father to protect his son.
Essentially a two-hander, Hillcoat shows us the journey of man and boy travelling south in a near-desolate post-apocalyptic world, continually in search of the basic necessities of life – food, water, heat, and shelter. When the father is forced to shoot and kill a member of a brutal gang, they find themselves in conflict with not just the environment but the violent depravities which human society has devolved to. While the boy searches for flashes of optimism with their spot human encounters, at every turn the overprotective father see everything as a hazard, not realizing that the other necessity of life is socialization and companionship.
In this day and age, post-apocalyptic films don’t need to explain how or why civilization could find itself crumbled like a house of cards, leaving the earth a desolate wasteland with humans back to survival of the fittest mode. But Hillcoat does open the film up in the present, before the apocalypse, showing Viggo Mortensen’s unnamed character and his unnamed wife (Charlize Theron), witnessing some kind of fiery blaze. No, it’s not necessary to show us this, but it is necessary to see Viggo’s domestic life before the chaos. With his wife pregnant with child, both parents know their son would be born into a chaotic world without security. Hillcoat flashes back to key moments in their life as a family debating the options – give up and commit suicide, or fight to survive and possible expose oneself to a life of brutal pain, and likely death.
This is the stuff of complex existential life reflection resulting in some heartbreaking and earth shattering decisions for the characters. Knowing the backstory and the option the duo gave up, helps us appreciate and understand the paternal bond Viggo has for his son. Viggo, again is a marvel, getting deep into the soul of a man with paternal instinct so strong it even clouds his overall ethics.
At several encounters Viggo’s moral character is tested, and he doesn’t always succeed. Each of the obstacles presented to the duo is a test of his fundamental belief in the goodness of man and our capacity for harmony. As a father, he is not only protective, but increasingly cynical and hardened. The final confrontation, with a solitary man, trying to survive just like he, played by Omar from ‘The Wire’ (Michael K. Williams) completes a character arc which sees him move from optimistic survivalist to a distrustful hateful man.
Hillcoat’s visual palette is not all that unlike other post-Apocalyptic films, grey in tones, with little colour. The stripped down natural environment, leafless trees, the cloudless sunlight, mixed with the abandoned cars, roads, houses etc. is typically bleak.
Call me a glass half full guy, but I sometimes wonder what life would be like if we had to revert to a world like we see in these movies. I personally believe what makes us human is our ability to think outside of the animalistic instincts of self-preservation. Despite the film’s blanket of bleakness McCarthy is a glass half full guy too and so I consider ‘The Road’ a very bumpy optimistic film of the future.