A Road less traveled
Clichés are banished in Cormac McCarthy’s cautionary
By James Scolari 12/10/2009
Directed by John Hillcoat
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce,
Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language.
1 hr. 52 min.
If cultural trends are any indication, we long for the apocalypse: at least, for the adventure as it’s typically portrayed — a new frontier of derring-do in a blissfully depopulated, de-rat-raced world of tomorrow. It’s a small price to pay if such worlds must be shared with zombies or space aliens or some other flavor of cinematic mutant. Besides, since the likes of Will Smith and Bruce Willis so handily deal with the menace, we imagine, so could we.
That romantic notion is entirely dispelled with director John Hillcoat’s The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. In McCarthy’s harrowing tale, civilization is no more, obliterated by an unspecified cataclysm.
Gone are most of the people, all of the animals and any hint of blue skies or growing things, leaving a nameless Viggo Mortensen and his small son to quest upon a desolate road in a desperate bid to simply survive. Along that road, they encounter neither zombies nor space aliens; they employ no kung-fu, no stinger missiles or telekinesis to dispatch foes; and there are no scantily clad women to serve as either oracle or sensual relief. Their road instead offers a too-frequent chilling drizzle, too-rare entrees of desiccated grasshopper, and too-rapacious brethren hell-bent on making entrees of them.
The dramatic repast is well-settled upon Mortensen’s shoulders, as he remains dedicated to the sort of deeply challenging work that has always characterized his career. He’s supported by a stellar cast that includes Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce — all kindred spirits in their preference for compelling cinema. Yet the star power is anything but glamorous here. As with the rest of the cast, Mortensen’s striking good looks are deeply buried, in his case beneath a grizzled beard, rotting teeth and an undeniable desperation in his eyes — tempered only by an equally tangible tenderness for his boy, played with heartbreaking candor by Kodi Smit-McPhee.
That tenderness is a recurring theme of The Road, despite the flinty edges of this world and the ugly realities of survival within it — offering welcome respites from otherwise unrelenting tension. It’s in Morten-sen’s ice-blue eyes, in the way McPhee shoulders his knapsack full of toys, in composer Nick Cave’s beautiful, gentle score that deeply contrasts with the imagery, and in the kindness of other wary survivors like Duvall’s half-blind hobo or Pearce’s rugged would-be savior. In the tenderness, we are reminded that dire straits notwithstanding, hope might be down but it’s never quite counted out.
Why, some may ask, award a Pulitzer Prize for characterizing such a lugubrious tomorrow? Moreover, why bring such a monochrome vision to the big screen? In the answer lies not only the genius of McCormac’s tale, but the filmmakers’ brilliance in adaptation, for ours is an age in which we seem to have lost sight of the gleaming, Jetsons-age, “big, bright beautiful tomorrow” that the likes of Disney and GE once touted as our legacy. Instead, it has been replaced by the dark imaginings of Nostradamus and Al Gore, a future that seems more likely characterized by environmental collapse or nuclear conflagration than in Utopian, New Age-style enlightenment. Yet perhaps in that realization lies the seed of redemption: if the bitter reality of The Road can serve as a cautionary tale, dispelling even for a few moments the balderdash of prevailing apocalyptic cinema, then we are well-served here by author, cast and crew. For there is inescapably a future waiting for us, and among probable timelines, we’re surely better off regarding The Road than, say, The Road Warrior; for while in the former could lie the hard lessons to prevent such a fruition, in the latter lies little more than fantasy, in which real problems are not only not solved, but, worse, are barely even considered.