The Road (2009)

When it’s on: Sunday, 27 May (10.00 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Post-apocalyptic films are nothing new. A couple of weeks ago, I covered I am Legend on these pages. Made two years before The Road, it proved there was life in the genre, yet John Hillcoat’s latter work – adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel – is kind of the anti-I am Legend. The theme of loneliness is discarded for one of almost unremitting bleakness. Will Smith lived in relative comfort even in an empty New York. The Road portrays an America in which all good things have gone. Its world is a dying one in which the few remaining humans scratch out the meanest of existences.

Most of the critical acclaim for this film went to actors Viggo Mortsensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Man and Boy, but equally good are the cinematography and production design. The Road presents a land without colour. Its washed out, grey palette is utterly appropriate and as repellent as the main characters in their dirt and ancient clothes. Some unexplained catastrophe has taken place on a planetary scale. Man and Boy make their way towards the sea, doing all they can to avoid human contact – because most surviving people prey on the weak for food – in the kind of hope that could be futile, indeed it’s implied that the end of their journey won’t necessarily end well, but Man can’t allow Boy to fall into despair. So they travel, walking past lifeless trees and ruined houses, occasionally stopping to search for food, treating every noise with suspicion, pushing a shopping trolley that’s laden with their few meagre possessions.

An early scene that takes place in an old mansion – where Man discovers exactly what happens to many of the surviving people – provides a harrowing note of drama, yet much of the film’s interest lies in the dynamic between the leads. There’s a lovely balance of sensibilities – Man regretful and slowly dying of cancer; Boy hopeful and open – and a real honesty. The chemistry is beyond doubt. Yet there’s tension also. Man’s belief that everyone they come across must be hostile is sometimes correct, but more and more it’s apparent that he’s alienating them from any possibility of connecting with anyone else. Boy’s exasperation with his father increases as he longs for company, and in that company a sort of hope and continuity. Their past life is outlined in flashbacks, which depict the life Man had with his wife, Woman (Charlize Theron), before the catastrophe, and her mental anguish at giving birth in a dying world.

One of the more impressive aspects about The Road is the relative lack of CGI. Parts of it were filmed around the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina, which replicated the environment of the film. It’s believable, because it’s really there. The same’s true for the lack of meat on Mortensen’s bones. Ever the method actor, Mortensen starved himself and took to wearing the same clothes and not washing for weeks, eventually getting turfed out of stores for the way he smelled. In the film, this clash between the two worlds is made explicit in a scene where Man and Boy uncover a secret hoard of provisions. For two days, they’re able to live like people used to. The tender way Man smokes a cigar gives an almost heartbreaking image of things lost, never to return.

The Road isn’t an easy watch. Its effort to depict a realistic post-apocalyptic backdrop ensures the lack of colour and indeed life. Man and Boy look ill because they most likely are, half-starved and exposed to an environment that has killed just about everything in it. Yet the emotional core is sublime, the acting between the two leads first rate, whilst cameos by some well respected performers – Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce turn up, playing very different people – are entirely credible.

The Road: ****

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