Here at the End of All Things
2009 // USA // John Hillcoat // December 3, 2009 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
B - Much of the unexpected power of No Country For Old Men arrives in its final fifteen minutes or so, as an arguably perfect thriller evolves into a profoundly moving rumination on justice, ethics, and, most devastatingly, the role of parents as surrogate gods in a cold, empty world. These themes are front-and-center in The Road, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by No Country author Cormac McCarthy. The film adaptation of The Road veritably howls the despairing thoughts that Sheriff Ed Tom Bell only murmured. I'm reluctant to criticize director John Hillcoat—whose previous film was the spit-and-gristle Aussie Western The Proposition—for the film's bracingly straightforward treatment of its central concern: namely, the deity-mortal corollaries in the parent-child relationship. Bracingly straightforward, after all, is McCarthy's preferred approach in his novel, and Hillcoat's film is nothing if not a remarkably faithful preservation of both the letter and spirit of the source material. Accordingly, what The Road delivers is one of the grimmest, bleakest, most emotionally draining stories in contemporary narrative fiction. It is not, needless to say, a corking good time at the movies. It is, however, a poignant, sharply realized work that starkly tackles moral dilemmas that have troubled humanity for millennia.
The potency of The Road lies within its central visual: a man (Viggo Mortensen) and a boy (Kodi Smith-McPhee), bedraggled and malnourished, trudge through an ashen wasteland pushing a shopping cart that contains their meager possessions. The Man and Boy (they are never given names) are nomads in a lifeless wilderness that was once the United States of America. Ten years ago, there were booming sounds, a flash of light, and fires that burned through the night. The precise nature of this apocalypse doesn't really matter, either to the scattered survivors or to the story that Hillcoat is striving to tell. For a decade, the world has slowly been dying. The sky is perpetually overcast, plant and animal life have nearly vanished, and most of the remaining humans have turned to roaming the highways in armed, cannibalistic gangs. The Boy, who was born shortly after the world changed, has known only this benighted existence. His mother, the Man's wife (Charlize Theron) is gone now, her despair prompting her to choose death in the darkness over rape and murder at the hands of others.
Despite appearances, The Road is not any sort of dystopian action-adventure film. Most of its narrative is occupied with the quiet banalities of the Man and Boy's search for food, and occasionally with their evasion of other survivors. Yet Hillcoat nonetheless maintains a sense of urgency and desperation, calling to mind the tone of a gritty escape picture... except in this case there is nowhere to escape to. There is only the Man's anxious need to keep moving, always south and towards the coast, for no particular reason other than to avoid the risks of remaining in one place for too long. Even in such unremittingly desolate circumstances, the Man believes it is vital to teach his son something like a moral code, to distinguish the Good Guys like themselves from the Bad Guys that wander the wastes with minds full of hunger and murder. The ethical dialog between Man and Boy, and how it ricochets off the people and situations that they encounter, comprises both the film's character development and its out-in-the-open exploration of theme.
The apocalypse that The Road envisions is admittedly contrivance. It sweeps away the accumulated bullshit of civilization by, well, just sweeping it away, and then poses fundamental questions of human morality in the most visceral terms possible. What does it mean to be good? How much do suspicion and cynicism limit our opportunity to help others? How do our words and actions convey our values to the next generation? This frankness to the film's purpose might have been off-putting, especially given that the scenario it presents is one that is utterly without hope. (Give it a moment's consideration and it becomes apparent that humanity will necessarily go extinct as the last morsels of preserved food are scavenged.) Hillcoat, however, discovers the invigoration and sorrowful fascination inherent in a story stripped down to its most elemental components. And narratives don't get more elemental than A Father and Son Try to Survive.
The Road is not really a science-fiction film, if only because the nitty-gritty details of its apocalyptic event are completely ignored. Yet it fulfills one of the essential criteria of speculative visions of the future, in that it uses its setting to explore contemporary mores. It's readily apparent that Hillcoat, absorbing and utilizing the creased cynicism of McCarthy's novel, intends that The Road not really be taken as a story of The Future at all, but as a timeless tale of the struggle against moral darkness and the essential role of the parent-child relationship in that struggle. The not-so-subtle implication is that The Road's nightmare world of blight and brutality is only a slight exaggeration of the world we are dwelling in right now. This notion lurks in the picture, but it never presses itself upon the viewer, partly because the Man and Boy's plight is so immediate, partly because Hillcoat paints such a dire landscape with such believability. It's a world of perpetual, ash-flecked winter, the miserable punchline to civilization. The blasted environs of Mount St. Helens and the Hurricane Katrina-lashed Gulf Coast stand in for this crumbling world, but you'd never know it. It's in the obvious computer-generated shots that the illusion frays.
The Man is the sort of role that Viggo Mortenson excels at, and it's difficult to imagine the film, for all of Hillcoat's capable craftsmanship, functioning even remotely as well without him. Mortenson is able to hold resolve and self-doubt in a character at the same time, and here he puts that skill to great effect. He has the ability to portray paternal devotion with unashamed white-hot purity, without rendering it schmaltzy. When he whispers to another traveler of uncertain intentions, "This boy is my god," we don't doubt him for a second. One can't blame Mortensen for the slightness that clings to the film, its searing emotional content notwithstanding. It's not that Hillcoat's treatment of the story is precisely perfunctory, but that he doesn't enliven its dismal and straightforward parameters with the artistic deftness necessary to lend it a a greater thematic or psychological intricacy. The Road's success thus rests primarily on its precisely drawn premise and the uncluttered and emotionally forthright execution of that premise.