“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
This excerpt from Robert Frost’s classic poem, The Road Not Taken, encompasses the reason why you should go see The Road. You’ve seen tons of films about the end of the world — aliens coming to kill us (or save us), biblical apocalypse, nuclear war games, machines taking over, natural disasters, and apes enslaving us. While The Road is definitely a thrilling movie about the end of the world, it barely qualifies as an apocalyptic thriller, despite what the trailers may suggest. I guarantee you haven’t seen a movie quite like this before.
The world is ruined — barren wastelands, enormous roving fires, desolate cities — thanks to a nameless catastrophe that’s never really explained (though nuclear war/disaster seems the case). Our characters are known simply as the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The Boy was born after the catastrophe, so his world is grey, devoid of plants and animals, and full of the ruins of a civilization that he doesn’t understand. Like many other early survivors, the Boy’s mother (Charlize Theron) decided to take her life to spare herself from starvation and being hunted by cannibalistic gangs.
Now alone, the Boy and his father decide to travel south. The winters are bitterly cold and harsh, but they aren’t just seeking warmer weather. They hope to find other survivors like them. Every day they fight for their lives. They must run, hide, and scavenge; evading those who covet their few belongings, food, flesh, and worse.
There you have it, that’s the plot. It’s dark and grim, and if you are wondering what the story arc is, then you’re in for a surprise. There isn’t one. Just like McCarthy’s novel, the focus isn’t on a designated conflict and resolution, but instead the entire film is the conflict in and of itself. Some people might be turned off by this, but if you have an open mind, it’ll pay off. It may seem depressing, but I’m confident in saying The Road may be the most life-affirming movie many will have seen this past year. John Hillcoat’s adaptation captures McCarthy’s tale of a single ray of hope amid oppressive, extensive darkness.
The father and son are driven by different forces. To the Man, the boy is all that matters. He tells us in a mournful voice-over that “the child is my warrant, and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.” The Boy is driven by the idea that he and his father are the Good Guys…that they “carry the fire” during a time when it seems they might be the only ones left that care. While the father focuses on doing anything necessary to protect his son (including putting their last bullet into his son’s head), the Boy begs kindness from his father toward other weary travelers they come across, including some undeserving ones. We see a message with a positive view of human nature. While there are those who rape, pillage, and plunder what’s left of their world, the Boy is a clean slate. His actions are based on instinct and good guidance. The Boy is the one carrying the fire, and on all spectrums, he is humanity.
Viggo was fantastic in his role. The Man is a sort of faceless ‘everyman’…a loving father and mighty protector, doing everything he can for the sake of his child. Mortensen really fits the bill, taking us through every emotion with the ease of a true professional. What was nice is that his star status didn’t overshadow the character as it might have if the lead had been given to, say, Pitt, Gibson, Clooney, or Bale. Kodi Smit-McPhee was also very good (both at being beautiful and wretched), and thankfully the two had great chemistry for a father-son relationship, considering they were together in 95% of every scene in the entire movie. Some smaller but vital roles were given out to the likes of Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce, and they both added a little something special to the very few scenes they were in.
The setting was a character unto itself. You notice that the scenery is grungy and toxic, yet sickeningly familiar. Director John Hillcoat used pictures from recent American disasters and barren places for his backgrounds. They shot on 8 miles of abandoned freeway in Pennsylvania, added clouds from images of 9/11 to the backdrops, and used many elements from post-Katrina Louisiana. Most of the indoor shots were done inside a ruined mall in New Orleans, and in one shot, there are two ships in the middle of a city street that appear to be CGI, but it’s actually an IMAX 70mm picture taken just days after Katrina. While the setting was the face of this third character, the music was it’s voice. It was a delicate matching of piano and violins, appropriately knowing when to speak and when to be understated and silent, just like the Man and the Boy.
The only problem I had with The Road was there were parts from the book that were left out, and yet, even at 2 hours in length it still felt a little rushed. That’s usually the case when movies are made from books, and I am just thankful that The Road stayed true to the original story.
I urge you to take Mr. Frost’s advice, and try your luck with a movie that might take you out of your safe zone. The poem doesn’t say whether the road less traveled turned out to be better or worse, just that it made all the difference. The Road is the same way. Some may not see the underlying hope, and deem it a rocky path to trod. Others will find it a welcomed change of pace and relish the impact it makes.
I give The Road 4 “Choose your Paths” out of 5.
If you’re looking for the ‘Feel-good Holiday Movie Fit for the Whole Family’, go elsewhere.
MPAA: Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language.
Runtime: 119 minutes