Rebecca Pearce praises a film that is authentically grim, yet hopeful, about the imminent apocalypse
The Road - 1hr 52 mins, 15
Many great films, it has to be said, revolve around subject matters which could hardly be considered uplifting. Nonetheless, they are great because they manage to accurately convey the complexities of emotion and the human spirit and by doing so bring their stories to life in an honest and poignant manner.
The Road, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy (author of No Country for Old Men, which later became an Oscar-winning Coen Brothers adaption) is definitely one of these films.
Films concerning the apocalypse are commonplace in Hollywood with the most recent being Roland Emmerich's 2012, but instead of making a big spectacle out of a catastrophe and the lead-up to it, The Road distinguishes itself by telling a very intimate, personal story about hope and survival after an unexplained cataclysm has destroyed the vast majority of the plants and animals on the earth.
Australian director John Hillcoat, most famous for previously directing The Proposition, a tough but critically-acclaimed western in 2005, excels in visually conveying the film's dark, despairing tone by means of bleak landscapes – often real locations modified using CGI – and a grey colour palette, giving a very real sense of a world that is mostly dead.
The main focus of the film, however, is not death but life as we follow the journey of an unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) and boy (Australian newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) trying to stay alive on their way to the coast of the United States.
With not a lot of importance given to dialogue, the greatest strengths of The Road are undoubtedly the astonishing performances and strong chemistry between the two leads, who are nothing short of convincing as parent and child.
The plot is somewhat episodic and focuses on several individual events that occur throughout the journey, so it is ultimately left to Mortensen and Smit-McPhee to keep it firmly grounded in the central storyline of a father protecting his son.
Mortensen, most famous for playing Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, seems to have found his niche in playing powerful roles in smaller films instead of big blockbusters, and his depiction of the character here is virtually flawless.
The man he portrays is slowly withering away and has clearly made the decision that his son is all that matters to him, yet as hard as he tries he can never fully let go of the existence he had before the current turn of events.
Smit-McPhee, meanwhile, brings life to a boy who has grown up in the oppressive atmosphere of the film but hasn't let go of his innocence, and becomes ever more concerned as he sees his father gradually losing his morality.
Morality, in fact, is a theme which runs through the entire film – the boy repeatedly seeks assurance that he and his father are "the good guys" and the man answers that they are, but the boundaries between good and evil have become blurred in a world where the few individuals left are merely fighting to stay alive.
One of the characters in The Road professes she does not want to just survive; while the viewers are shown the harrowing lengths the father and other survivors he encounters will go to in order to do just that.
We are also shown how many individuals choose death when there seems to be nothing to live for, while the boy demonstrates throughout that he has a will to live. Meanwhile, he also endeavours to maintain his and his father's humanity, providing just a glimmer of hope for the future.
It is that glimmer which adds the final layer to The Road, a frequently brutal and yet also touching film which carefully walks the line but manages to just avoid falling into cliché. The ending may seem a slight disappointment, but like the rest of the film it is quiet and understated instead of grandiose and all-encompassing. In the world of The Road, there are no easy solutions and no makeshift happy ending, but far from being depressing the film is instead greatly affecting and watching it remains a powerful experience which will stay with you long after you have left the cinema.
The Road is now showing at the Arts Picturehouse and at Vue Cinemas.Rebecca Pearce
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