There is a man and there is a boy, they are travelling to the coast of America, its the end of the world and things aren’t looking good.
That single sentence, I think, effectively sums up the extremely simple narrative of The Road, its about a father and son trying to do there best to survive a nightmarish post apocalyptic future. We don`t know our protagonists names, we don’t know how the world became like this and we don’t know if there is any salvation that lies at the end of our heroes journey.
The Film here has been adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name (of which I have read) and sticks relatively closely to the book while also adding something new to it. The translation from book to screen can more often than not be a difficult one and has plagued more films than I care to mention, The Road, fortunately does not join this list. The book had quite a poetic prose about it and focused a lot on lengthy descriptions of the wasteland our characters inhabit, this aspect of the book translates perfectly on screen, the imagery that McCarthy aroused in the book for the reader is captured flawlessly on film here.
Now for those who have read the book you can almost immediately, without even seeing the film imagine what it would look like when put to screen… Pretty depressing am I right? This leads to the most important element of the entire film and that is its bleakness. The Road is an extremely tough film to watch, it is completely and utterly unrelenting in its presentation of the world that the film inhabits: people hang themselves, women would rather die than live in fear of being raped and worst still kill their own children to prevent them from the same fate. This is, obviously, very dark material. However it must be said that I think this was an extremely brave decision on the filmmakers behalf, there are countless films or television shows that present the apocalypse, whatever the cause of said apocalypse may be, as being almost an amusing discussion point. Television shows like The Walking Dead, which some people believe to be REALLY brutal (it is not) ask audiences to discuss “what would you do in this situation? How would you survive the end of the world with your mates?”. It makes it seem, fun or light-hearted, with actors walking round like they eat five meals a day and have the best dental hygiene known to man. It trivialises it, because we as a viewer, are never fully transported and feel we could easily survive and it would be a jolly ol` gallivant, well The Road is here to change that.
The Roads oppressive and might I add, successful atmosphere is mostly down to its cinematography. Javier Aguirresarobe knows exactly what his job is here, he places the characters in wide shots so they appear fragile and small to the world around them, this really gives the sense of the hostile landscape closing in around them. This great juxtaposition of character and landscape also works wonders when matched with the different colours that Aguirresarobe also implements. The urban greys make the film look so cold and uninviting, even when our characters move away from the city and into the more wild backdrop, the colours are still dark and unforgiving, there is no life here, everything has been obliterated and nothing can survive. Its really, really dispiriting stuff that I think casual audiences will have a hard time watching, there is no secret bastion of hope where our characters can be warm and comforted. You know by looking at a single frame from the film that you survive or you die in this new world. There are some flashbacks to The Man and Woman as they enjoy a life together before whatever it is that caused this hell on earth to happen, these flashbacks are shot in bright, warm colours that perfectly contrast what we witness for the majority of the film.
Interestingly in this film the dialogue is very sparse, this isn’t a particularly wordy film or plot heavy, so when the characters do speak its usually meant. One of the reasons Joe Penhall the writer was offered the job was because he saw nothing wrong with keeping the dialogue in the book for the film. Apart from that, there isn’t much to say on the writing front, its solid and can be powerful in parts and similarly to the films score, its used sparingly.
John Hillcoat who directs the film is perfect here, most filmmakers would shy away from the more explicit or violent scenes, Hillcoat does not. He knows it is necessary to include the darker scenes such as The Woman/Mother (yes she has no name) committing suicide, by leaving her makeshift home with her husband and son because death will be a release from the life that is ahead of them. Or have The Boy witness a decaying corpse to which his father tells him “you’ve seen worse”. The only scene I know Hillcoat omitted, which he filmed and is in the book, is the baby being roasted over a fire, he simply stated it would’ve been “too much”, hes probably right.
So Hillcoat isn’t afraid to shoot the nasty scenes, we got that, how does he fair with his actors and the more tense action sequences? Well it turns out, pretty well. There are a number of tense encounters with other “survivors” who are also roaming the wasteland and some prove themselves to be very dangerous toward our protagonists. In one absolute standout scene The Boy and Man enter what they believe to be an unattended house, finding a locked cellar which could contain supplies, what they find is far far worse. Its a scene that after seeing it for the first time so many years ago it still stays with me, the lighting, the cinematography and direction all accumulate to a truly haunting scene that I don’t think I will ever forget. Finally Hillcoat has been known to have a great relationship with his actors and here is absolutely no different, he keeps supporting cast members (including some famous famous which I`ll talk about later) on screen for a very small amount of time, but still impressively gets attention grabbing performances out of them. Now I purposely have not mentioned the two lead performances up until now because I believe that their chemistry is not because of strong direction, but simply great acting on its own merit.
Playing The Boy we have Kodi Smit-McPhee (cast because of his likeness to Charlize Theron), an actor who even at the ridiculously young age he was when filming began (only 11), really gives a solid performance. Usually child actors are quite difficult to work with because they may not emotionally able to understand a scene, not having the life experience to bring to the role, McPhee uses this to his advantage and makes his performance a stark contrast to Mortensens. The Boy still believes there is kindness in the world asking his father “Are we the good guys?” he still has a simple view of the world but also after seeing what is father is capable of, questions it and develops as a character. He is far more positive and trusting of people than his counterpart and provides an incredibly small glimmer of hope for the audience. McPhee offers up a loving contrast to his weather worn and protective father played by (Viggo Mortensen).
So here we have Viggo Mortensen, he has been my favorite actor for as long as I can remember and here he gives one of his best performances. A father himself, Mortensen owns the role of The Man, his conviction and ferocity for the defense of his son knows absolutely no bounds. Even when hes handed lines such as “I`ll kill anyone that touches you, that’s my job” Mortensen turns what could be an overused line (How many people say they’d kill anyone for their family *insert eye roll emoji*) into something that’s passionately felt, deeply moving, and desperate. Its important to note at this point I haven’t gone into any particular detail about any of the scenes in this film but I will talk about one in some specifics here, I don’t think its a spoiler as it is quite near the beginning! It is revealed relatively early on in the film that The Man has a gun, but it only has two bullets in, that’s only two people they can fend off then right? Wrong. The Man is saving the bullets to kill himself and his son if the time comes. This is a key scene in the film because it epitomises the desperation of our characters but also highlights the risks Mortensen will take as an actor. Not only will The Man kill his son, but as he states later in the film, his biggest worry is that his son wouldn’t be able to kill himself if necessary. After finishing the film I began to think of actors who would take on a role like this, then I thought of actors who typically play fathers. One that immediately came to mind was Will Smith, an actor who is pretty obsessed with having a squeaky clean image as a “cool dad” in his celebrity life and one that tries to portray himself as a loving self sacrificing father when it comes to film. Yet Smith would never take on a role like this, he would never film a scene like the one just discussed with such raw, real emotion and dedication, that’s what proves Mortensen as the great actor that he is. Its also worth noting that Mortensen dropped a lot of weight for this role and was actually mistaken for a homeless man while preparing for it.
I would like to stress that usually films are promoted advertising an actors weight loss or weight gain, many actors believe that this means they become the character. An example is Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler, a man who usually is large in size from being one of those annoying gym “bros”, he dropped a lot of weight to play an English professor in said film and believed doing so and putting on some glasses meant he became the role. This is simply not true and as soon as you see Wahlberg on screen you don’t believe hes read a book in his life. What Mortensen proves is that weight loss can help you perform the physicality of a character but as an actor you also have to understand the psychology of one, something he demonstrates perfectly here and shockingly somehow didn’t at the very least, garner a nomination for him at The Academy Awards.
Along with our two protagonists we have a great supporting cast from the likes of Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall. Theron is really great as the depressive, realist mother who accepts the reality of the situation she is in “They’re gonna rape me, then they’re gonna rape your son, then they’ll kills us”. Theron holds nothing back delivering these lines, she isn’t scared or nervous, shes a woman and a mother who knows that what shes saying is true. Robert Duvall also manages to carve out a nice performance playing an almost blind traveller, his small moment when he mentions his son (a piece of dialogue actually ad-libbed by Duvall) is very moving.
Its really hard to recommend The Road, I love the film but telling other people to watch it is a bit like recommending Schindlers List, yes the film works brilliantly on many levels, but it isn’t an easy watch. I think if you are a “general” audience to cinema and like your films to be blockbusters or light hearted dramas then stay away from this, as I think you will only come away with a negative experience. However if you are more open minded with your cinema viewing then I think this is a really great way to expand your knowledge of minimalist dialogue and post apocalyptic films. Its also a great introduction to Viggo Motensen as an actor and is one of his more accessible films.
As it stands there are no different cuts of the film available, only the one that was shown in cinemas. If there is one nitpick I have with the film its that it could probably lose 10 minutes off its running time, aside from that there is nothing wrong with the editing. The Blu-ray release has some bare bone extras that aren’t particularly great and a few deleted scenes. I recently updated my standard edition Blu-Ray with a steelbook from Zavvi, I really love this steelbook, the silver on the front is very striking and the imagery printed on the inside encapsulates the mood of the film nicely. You can purchase it here:
or go for the standard edition here: