Saturday, February 20, 2010

"The Road" best left untraveled

“The Road”, starring Viggo Mortenson, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce, is a movie about survival in a post-apocalyptic world. This is a theme that has been around for awhile (for example, “On the Beach”) but there are several things that set this movie apart.

From Wikipedia: "The Road shares the premise of the novel on which it is based: a father (Mortensen) and his young son (Smit-McPhee) struggle to survive a number of years after an unspecified, devastating cataclysm has destroyed civilization, killed all plant and animal life, and obscured the sun; only remnants of mankind remain alive, reduced to scavenging or cannibalism. Man and boy are travelling toward the south, in the hope that it will be warmer. Along the way, they search for shelter, food and fuel, and avoid bands of cannibals while trying to maintain their own sense of morality and humanity. The man carries a revolver, but has only two bullets which the father seems to want to keep in case they need to commit suicide. Flashback and dream sequences spaced throughout the narrative show how the man's wife, who has a much more expanded role in the film than in the book, committed suicide after delivering the child into a seemingly doomed world and losing the will to go on."

Mortenson provides a strong portrayal of a father who is trying to maintain his humanity in the face of total societal, cultural and ecological meltdown in order that he might be a good role model for his son. The man also tries to show his son how to be strong and how to be wary of those who would do him harm. This is particularly important since it appears that the cannibals find meat from the young particularly desirable. As the man becomes sick, Mortenson’s face becomes sallow and sunken. It is an amazing transformation and does not seem to rely on appliances.

The boy (Smit-McPhee- what a name) shows a naïve openness to others, even in the face of their potential danger. He is shocked by his father’s brutality to others even when the viewer can see that that brutality seems warranted. SMP does as credible job of remaining a boy and not just an actor. However, I found the actions of the boy at the end to be a bit unbelievable. He is like a puppy that will go with anyone who offers even a small treat. Under the circumstances, we all would have impaired judgment, but somehow, the movie ended too quickly to show fully how the boy made his decisions. I would have liked a bit more to convince me that he decided to leave his dead father for more than a promise of friends his age (among other reasons).

Theron is not in the film for a long period but we get the sense that she has reached an existential crisis and cannot go on living in this devastated and unyielding world. Yet I find fault with either Theron’s acting or the director’s sense of her character. I simply did not see portrayed the utter despondency and the lack of connectedness that would d have lead up to her fateful choice. Also her decision on how she would take her own life seemed a bit too filled with self loathing.

Guy Pearce (he of the gaunt face and high cheekbones) was nearly unrecognizable as was Robert Duvall. To me, this was quite a tribute to the make-up artists.

The landscape, a character in its own right in the film, is barren and wasted. There is no green, no growth, and no bright sun, but only cold and leafless trees. Much of the movie was filmed in Western Pennsylvania. I recognized one office building that the SFX gurus made look like it had been burned and paritally collapsed. I also recognized a-long abandoned turnpike tunnel .

This movie has received great reviews, but for me, Mortenson was its best part. The shortcomings I described were enough to keep me from thinking it was great.

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