By Jonathan Kiefer
At last: The long-delayed, ambivalently anticipated, Viggo Mortensen-intensive adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, about a man and his young son wandering through a glumly gritty post-apocalyptic world, opens in Santa Fe. And just in time to kick off the holiday season! Here’s a movie with a few suggestions about what you might want to be thankful for.
“Each day is more gray than the one before,” Mortensen’s nameless character solemnly narrates early on. He’s not lying. Unless, that is, you consider it a lie of omission that he doesn’t say each day is also more brown than the one before. If The Road is not a fully original vision, it does at least seem like a contender for distinction as the grayest and brownest movie ever made.
Screenwriter Joe Penhall and director John Hillcoat, probably aware that movies have by now rendered trite the notion of coping with life after an apocalypse (partly through requisite flashbacks to before the apocalypse), seem to have determined in advance that theirs would be the post-apocalyptic film that spells out absolutely nothing.
McCarthy set that precedent in his book, of course, and it seems like both a stylistic hallmark and a political stance: If mankind must insist on besmirching its own dignity, the author seems therefore magnanimous when allowing at least for the dignity of narrative restraint. The movie agrees, and so we see a ruined city and some vestigial carnage, while the details of how the end of it all got started remain artfully (grayly, brownly) obscured. As cinematic cataclysms go, The Road is rather proudly the opposite of a Roland Emmerich film.
All we really know is that earthquakes are involved. And that most of our species—in America, at least—didn’t make it. And that Robert Duvall, with his soulful, turbid eyes, saw it coming. But of course he did. He’s Robert-effing-Duvall.
As for the big role, it might be called the performance of Mortensen’s career, if only because he seems most in his element when a. greasy-haired, b. occasionally nude or c. both. In these regards, The Road is always there for him, as he is for it. And it’s very much to his credit that the overall one-noteness of the thing absorbs more than it irritates. Give this man a gun with two bullets and a kid to look after, and just watch him go. Even if he’s going nowhere.
The child is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee—quite well, given what might be the most potentially traumatizing role for a young actor since Danny Lloyd was cast in The Shining.
For all of The Road’s reserve, maybe there’s a tad too much talk of what it means to be “the good guys,” namely, “carrying the fire.” Ah yes, and just look what we’ve done with that gift from Prometheus, whose reward for giving it to us was protracted torture.
Well, if this road really is the one ahead for humanity, maybe he can consider us even.
Directed by John Hillcoat
With Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Robert Duvall
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14