Life after people: The Road **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2009)

Sadly, this is pretty close to how I envision my retirement.

You know what they say-“Misery loves company”. The dark shadow of apocalyptic doom looming over every other Hollywood release recently would seem to bear this out. “Hey, half my friends and relatives might be out of work, no one can afford health coverage, food bank cupboards are bare and we may be headed into a Hundred Year’s War in Afghanistan…but at least I’m not as bad off as that poor random bastard getting swallowed up by a huge molten crack in the earth on the screen-woo hoo!”

And now The Road (based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel) has trudged into theaters, close on the heels of 9 and 2012. This one makes the latter two films look like a carefree romp in the fields.

Unlike 2012, which is the equivalent of disaster movie porn (utilizing just enough perfunctory bits of narrative to justify stringing together all the “money shots” involving volcanic eruptions, violent temblors, tidal surges and other assorted earth-shattering ka-booms), The Road is more concerned with the post-coital conversation, as it were. The earth moved, a few of us survived…now what? How do we live? How do we eat? How do we get from “A” to “B”? How do we treat each other? Will civilization eventually rise from the ashes and right itself, or is it back to flint arrows and re-discovering the wheel?

The nature of the World Changing Event that put them in their predicament is not quite specified, but the latter film’s two protagonists, notated in the credits simply as Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kody Smit-McPhee) are wandering about in a cold, ashen environment resembling a nuclear winter. Curiously, we see stands of brush or trees spontaneously combusting on occasion, although there is no obvious scientific explanation offered or inferred as to the cause.

This is not a post-apocalyptic milieu a la Beyond Thunderdome, with relatively well-scrubbed characters sporting pearly whites, fashionable post-punk wardrobes and colorful personalities. The people in this hard scrabble landscape actually look like people would look without access to a hot shower, a bar of soap, toothpaste or a change of clothes for months (possibly years) at a time. We are talking grime. Serious grime. Let’s not even discuss the teeth (dental hygienists are warned: The Road will give you nightmares).

Nearly everybody appears malnourished, as well. It’s survival of the fittest, but hardly anyone is fit. Have I mentioned that this is a pretty bleak and depressing scenario? The story (such as it is) is pretty simple, really. The Man and the Boy are slowly, painfully making tracks to the coast, where they hope that the environment is more palatable (one would assume; the reasons are not made quite clear).

Along the way, they scrounge for food and shelter, ever on the lookout for roving bands of post-apocalyptic highwaymen, who would just as soon blow you away first and then search your corpse for whatever meager provisions you might have squirreled away in your clothing. The pair’s desperate walkabout becomes progressively more nightmarish; they barely escape the clutches of a motley crew not unlike the mountain men in Deliverance, only to then run into the family from The Hills Have Eyes.

The only respite from the relentlessly grim proceedings is provided by sporadic flashbacks in the form of the Man’s uneasy dreams about his long-dead wife (Charlize Theron)-although those memories are not necessarily all pleasant ones, either.

I have not read the book; I will take the word of my friend who I saw it with that it is a pretty faithful adaptation (by Joe Penhall). Perhaps it is too faithful, as the film is a somewhat static and stagy affair. Director John Hillcoat (who helmed the 2005 sleeper The Proposition, which I really liked) sustains a dark and foreboding atmosphere; thanks to  DP Javier Aguirresarobe (quite a contrast to his sunny photography for Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona).

Still, something was missing for me, although it is tough to pinpoint. It certainly was not the fault of the cast. Mortensen and Theron are always interesting to watch, and I thought young Smit-McPhee was very good. Robert Duvall is barely recognizable for most of his brief appearance, and if you blink you’ll miss Guy Pearce’s cameo (everyone’s well-disguised by those stunt teeth). I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, either. This may not be the road you want to take. Then again, misery loves…oh, never mind.

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