Saturday, June 26, 2010

Reader Request: THE ROAD

Let's just say this right up front. Watching John Hillcoat's The Road (2009) again in the midst of weeks of news reports about the BP oil spill is an entirely different experience than watching The Road during the mad holiday rush when it premiered or earlier still. It takes on a whole new coat of thick dread and sad relatability. This clings to the film as tenaciously as dirt clings to Viggo's weary face. I would add compassion to its new layers but the film always had a robust heart beating underneath the ash, toxic slush and malnourished skin.


Though Joe Penhall's screenplay adaptation preferences more backstory than the masterful Cormac McCarthy novel, it still sidesteps the imagination-deficiency of Hollywood that usually leads to a distracting amount of exposition. Backstory can be useful in small doses but the complete terror at leaving anything to the audience's imagination has ruined too many modern films. It's a relief to see some corrective.

In the case of The Road, it's important for us to know that the apocalypse happened; The amazing art direction (which I probably should have nominated in my personal awards) and shots of a sickly yellow light outside a window, is enough to convey the end of the world. But it's equally crucial that we don't know why said apocalypse happened. This is more realistic (if the world as we know it is suddenly destroyed, chances are the survivors will be utterly confused) and leaves the movie open to complete immersion for any viewer, transcending all political biases.

I, for instance, imagine that any future apocalypse will occur due to either fanatic religious types who just can't swallow the "live and let live" concept or from our systemic political problems which always value corporate profits over the health of our fellow men and the planet (see also: BP oil spill and "drill baby drill" madness, An Inconvenient Truth, etcetera).

But if you were the opposite type of person, say someone who believes in the sanctity of an unregulated market or someone who is deeply religious, or someone who is Sarah Palin, your imagined apocalypse will probably come from other places. There are certainly people out there who think that the apocalypse will come from God because he's angry with people for loving the "wrong" gender, you know?

But no matter.

If or when the world ends, none of these distinctions will matter. The only thing that will matter to anyone is survival. And even that won't be an attractive option. Charlize Theron playing "woman" for example isn't too keen on it. I don't think I would be either, though it'd surely be awfully hard to drag yourself away from Viggo Mortensen. Especially if he was whimpering and begging for you to stay.

"Spend one more night with me. Why.. why do you have to go?"

Theron seems to be willing herself to become the female embodiment of misery with her film choices of late -- when do we ever see her smile? -- but she's good at it. Viggo Mortensen, on the other hand, is a straight up miracle worker.

Is there a famous actor alive who is this masculine yet utterly non-posturing about it? As an actor he can access incredibly soft places that lesser men could never approach without hedging or diluting self consciousness. Viggo's always front and center and as a result The Road becomes a unique animal, a tender apocalyptic drama. This genre tends to go for the jugular with manly brutality. That's kind of flattering machismo posturing itself, letting audiences know that only the strong survive and our hero happens to be THE STRONGEST.

"I won't let anything happen to you. I'll take care of you.
I'll kill anyone who touches you. Because that's my job."

Viggo and screen son Kodi Smit-McPhee are paired well and the papa/child emotions run deep enough that the movie ends up feeling far more brutal than most apocalypse-set films. For this time you can see the death of goodness, or softness, or "the light" if you will, in danger of being snuffed out forever. That's more brutal than any physical violence.

The best things about The Road when it first arrived such as the fine acting from all corners (though the film isn't exactly crowded), smart art direction and a judicious filling out of the novel for the big screen are still intact in the film's second life for home viewing. Unfortunately for all of The Road's rather significant strengths, it was doomed from the get go in measuring up to one of the best novels ever written. For instance, how could the film possibly match the book's final paragraph [SPOILER] which contains such a genius literary flourish, abandoning the characters for a poetic and nearly abstract memory of trout in a stream. [/SPOILER].

And oh, how I wish the movie hadn't had a score. Though the compositions by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are fine on their own terms as musical elements, a score is the wrong choice for the movie, hobbling its otherwise disheartening emptiness. If ever a movie needed to go without music it was this one. The recurring reminder of "Papa"'s relationship to music, those painful shots of the family piano in a couple of scenes, would be a thousand percent more devastating if the piano and memory scenes were the only notes we heard, music dying along with the rest of the world. Think of that potent moment in Cast Away when the music finally returned to the film as Tom Hanks escaped his island prison? That would never have been as rousing and cathartic had we been hearing a score the whole time. That film stumbles more often than The Road does, so I don't mean to compare the latter unfavorably. But it's hard not to imagine that The Road could have been a truly stark miserabilist classic with more commitment to the withholding of traditional movie comforts.

B+
(up a notch from previous grade)
P.S. If you haven't read the novel, do so immediately. It's an all time great.
*

25 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Excellent writeup, this film does improve when I rewatch it. I liked it at first but felt that despite its excellent "parts" the whole wasn't great. It's still not great, but better. I do love Charlize hear who still astounds me with the little screen time she has, and of course Viggo is great...but it's the art direction that always grabs me. Hillcoat did well.

Ray DeRousse said...

Nathaniel, you're exactly right.

The novel is essentially prose poetry. Cormac's use of language in spare, halting sentences reinforces the grim imagery and outlook. I think you could actually take pages out of this novel and display them on a museum wall.

The film never had a chance, but it tries. I, like you, wish they had never put music over this. I also wish they would've tried a bit harder to make the land around them more desolate; too much of the film feels like it was filmed along a muddy country road in Tennessee, rather than feel like the epic wasteland of the novel.

Jorge Rodrigues said...

Loved this review.

It is one of my top-5 favourite books ever and it didn't live quite well to its expectations (much like The Lovely Bones and Blindness, which are also on my top-5; here's hoping Never Let Me Go changes this) but it's an extraordinary film nontheless.

And you're right about the score. It IS amazing but the film didn't need it. It is meant to makes us want to rip our heart from our chest and the music, despite being very souless and dark, lightens the tone of the movie.

And I totally agree with Ray, the book should be displayed in a museum wall. It's one of the most vivid portraits of the fragility of the human condition I've ever seen.

And Viggo was perfect as The Father. I still don't know how he was NOT nominated. He was easily #3 on my ballot after Colin Firth and Clooney (yeah I didn't like The Hurt Locker that much and I don't think Jeff Bridges is SO frickin' outstanding in Crazy Heart - he's my #5 though, after #4 which is Rockwell).

No Bad Movies said...

Nathaniel did you read the book ? I did and if you did, I was wondering if you thought the film version should have left in the catamites or if leaving them out made no bearing on the movie because when I read the book those people made my hair stand off my arms ! I thought they would have definitely given the film an hard R.

MRRIPLEY said...

Nat how can you not mention robert duvall's 8 minute stunning cameo.

MattyD. said...

I love this movie SO. MUCH.

I was flabbergasted that it was completely overlooked for awards come last season. I mean, VIGGO! And APOCALYPSE. And CHARLIZE And MCCARTHY. And CHARLIZE. And FATHER/SON RELATIONSHIP. And WEINSTEINS. Oh, wait. Now I know why it was overlooked. (And yes, those all needed caps.)

The novel is a classic and an astounding experience in itself, but my friends and I were overwhelmed with how the novel was adapted. It's a near-perfect adaptation I'd say. And while I love the score, I can't help but like your idea so much better after reading it. Kudos, brilliance.

Danielhardy23@gmail.com said...

a perfect review. with no score at all, this really could have been a genuine american classic. i wish i could blame an interfering studio, but unfortunately it was john hillcoat's vision from the outset to 'lift' the film with nick cave and warren ellis's music. such a shame, considering all his other choices were so dead on. but still, a movie in great need of reappraisal.

i'm so sick of people complaining about 'depressing' movies, and even among friends with good taste, i know a lot more people who went to see transformers 2 last year and missed out on this one. for me, a movie like the road, which is about something, and has genuine soul and skill, is actually invigorating to watch, whereas pretty much 99% of what passes through the local multiplex would have me slitting my wrists if i was forced to sit through the accumulated dumbed down corporate crap which is currently killing american film. the death of cinema is a much more depressing prospect than a well made movie about the struggle to keep goodness alive in a dying world. now more than ever, can we all please remember that we vote with our wallets? end of rant.

Anonymous said...

Although your idea is intersting, I think a lack of score would've made this film slower, and that was also a risk. The film was slow enough (and that doesn't mean it was boring), and the score was just helping the film move forward.

Anonymous said...

One of my fav movie last year.
I dislike the score

OtherRobert said...

I still don't like Smit-McPhee in this film. I tolerated him on a first watch and grew to dislike the directorial decisions connected to him on a second watch. I mean, I know what the book is like, but do we really need to see the gun pointed at the boy or in the boy's mouth every time there's an echo of a footstep? He got to open his eyes and shake for most of the film. He's a kid that needed more help getting the character across and that's not his fault. Otherwise, I really like the performances.

There's a montage towards the end that I've grown to find laughable between the man and the woman. I get it's purpose but hate the execution and placement in the film.

I liked the film overall, but I think it missed the mark. The shocks aren't nearly as effective as they could be if they didn't follow the same gun-pointing formula every time, including what camera angles are used and how the characters respond emotionally to the situation. In a way, it created an interesting cyclical nature to the film but I don't think that was the right choice. This isn't Sisyphus, it's the end of the world.

NATHANIEL R said...

@NoBad -- yes i loved the book (um, i mentioned it twice in the post!). It's in my top 5 books of all time up there with The Great Gatsby and Beloved.

@Jorge -- watching it again i'm actually kind of embarrassed that I myself discounted this performance. I'm still not sure i would have nominated him but maybe. he's definitely near the shortlist even if he isn't on it. i'll revisit in a few years.

@Mrripley -- well i already gave him a medal, you know. How much more does Duvall need? ;)

@DanielHardy -- agreed. go vote with your wallet. SEE "I AM LOVE" so we can get more sensual adult melodrama in our lives, too.

@OtherRobert -- i get where you're coming from actually but the repetitive nature of it bothered me a lot less in this viewing than previously. I'd also agree that the placement of the viggo/charlize scenes is sometimes not maybe excellent

BrianZ said...

Great write-up. Excellent point especially on the score, which is very good on its own, but doesn't fit the film.

Arkaan said...

I pretty much agree, though the film was so horrifically bleak (the cinematography and art direction do wonders in unison) that the score, as somber as it was, helped me a little bit. It's a stirring composition in its own right (I have it on my iPod).

I think you pretty much nailed why Viggo Mortensen has emerged as one of the actor's of the aughts. He manages to be masculine while never shunting away tenderness or softness.

I haven't rewatched it though. And I agree - the book is a top five of the aughts for me.

NATHANIEL R said...

arkaan -- i don't just mean top five of the aughts. i mean top five ever. that's how great i think the book is. now admittedly i'm not a voracious reader but i've rarely if ever been so entranced / moved by a book.

Rebecca said...

Even though I thought Theron was good in this, I wish she would do a film comedy. I thought she was great in 'Arrested Development', it's probably the only time she hasn't played a completely miserable and dour character.

cinephile said...

Viggo Mortensen is one of the greatest actors of our time. It's strange that he has been nominated just once.
Watch Blindness again, I think it will also be quite a different experience. I can't stop saying how underrated I think this movie is. These bleak, dystopian, apocalyptic cinematic allegories don't have much luck nowadays, obviously.

Arkaan said...

I am a pretty voracious reader (I easily read more novels/works of fiction than see movies in theatres), so it'll remain top five of the aughts for me. But it's definitely a beauty..

And no one's mentioned Molly Parker, who manages to do so much with so little in her brief moment that you wonder why she isn't more in demand. That coldness, probably, but she was stunning.

Volvagia said...

As I've said, for me, this book in a Top Five EVER is an overreach. Hardy? Thackeray? Pynchon? Cervantes? DeLillo? Foster Wallace? Joyce? Tolstoy? Carrol?

NATHANIEL R said...

volvagia ... well like i said i'm not a voracious reader but these are my favs

most loved
THE LITTLE PRINCE
BELOVED
THE GREAT GATSBY
THE ROAD
INSIDE OSCAR
SCREWTAPE LETTERS

other fav off top of my head
THE BODY ARTIST
ORLANDO
ANIMAL FARM
GERMINAL
FATHERS AND SONS
BLINDNESS
PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION
THE HOURS
anything by Lynda Barry

guilty pleasure
anything by Carrie Fisher
fantasy novels in general

Laurie Mann said...

I agree with almost everything you've said, in particular how silence (and no score) would have improved it, the great acting and the art direction. I wound up liking it a little more than you (8 out of 10), but, agree wholeheartedly when you rewatch it now after the BP oil disaster, you come away with an even stronger feeling about it.

NATHANIEL R said...

Laurie -- thanks for commenting! Well a B+ is a good grade for me. for whatever reason I am stingy .

but not stingy with love, just grading :)

Adam M. said...

Great review. This was one of my favorites from last year (I saw it a few hours after a screening for 'Up in the Air'... it was a good day!), and I think it's criminal that it was passed on by the Academy and so many other recognizing institutions--particularly for Viggo's miraculous, humbling performance.

I think this could be one of those films that people discover later on. The Weinsteins really botched the P&A when it was released, and I think the filmgoing flavor at the time was much too upbeat. (I think heavy films do better after a stretch of obnoxious lighter fare, which is one reason that Inception should do gangbusters in a few weeks.)

I was so terribly moved by this movie (two tears... which is two more than most get out of me), but I also recognized that something wasn't completely there--that something wasn't right. But I can't figure out what that something was! The performances were excellent, the artistry and lensing were excellent, the script was (by my account, considering the source) rather excellent... heck, I didn't even mind the score. I thought it was lovely--not intrusive. So why isn't it a masterwork? I think it has to with Hilcoat's overall realization: not enough epic scope or greater perspective to counter the small, personal story of a boy and his father. I'm still not entirely sure though...

Ian said...

Adore the book. The film was seriously hosed last year. I'd have had Viggo Mortensen in the top five easily over Morgan Freeman's slot. The distribution was terrible, and the subject matter was such a hard sell for middle of the road audiences. But if people gave it a real chance, I believe that they would have found worth to it. It could at least have been given an acting nod and some techs (it's shameful that this was overlooked in categories like art direction, costumes, makeup, and cinematography). Maybe it'll reach cult status one of these days on DVD.

Anonymous said...

While it did a nice job navigating through the major plot points in the book, I just felt it was too thin overall for a full length film, very repetitive, and I really did find the kid a bit annoying after awhile. He sounded more than a little whiney when he was crying. This sounds harsh, I know, but in spite of decent acting and art direction, I actually fell asleep here and there. I read the book and I have to say McCarthy's prose style can't always be captured in a compelling way on screen. No Country For Old Men is easily the best film made from his work, EASILY. And besides, here you have people starving and a dog is actually kept as a pet. In reality that dog would have been toast rather quickly, literally toast. Sorry to sound so mean but only telling it like it would more likely be.

No Bad Movies said...

I hope they don't hatchet job Blood Meridian. That's a pretty grim story as well but still a page turner. Am I the only one that thinks Todd Field an odd pick to direct the film ?