Saturday, January 16, 2010

Nuclear Families I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

In my review of Time of the Wolf, I confessed a weakness for post-apocalyptic stories in greyscale. I should like to confess another weakness, the one I harbour for writer Cormac McCarthy. He is in my not-at-all-humble opinion, our greatest living author, though I admit to not having nearly as many books as I should; I don't know if you've guessed this or not but I'm a touch more into cinema than literature. I like all his books but I'd have felt comfortable with that assessment based solely on the strength of his two finest novels. The first, Blood Meridian, is quite unlike anything ever written and is one of the most beautifully harrowing pieces of prose I've encountered. The second, The Road, is one of the most polarizing books in recent history. When it was announced that John Hillcoat, Nick Cave's favorite filmmaker and director of The Proposition, would be adapting it for the big screen, a similar love-it-or-hate-it reaction was due to be elicited from everyone who saw it. I was encouraged by the many flags that kept going up around the production in the year and a half leading up to its release. The first was that much of the shooting would take place in my home state because why CG up a hellacious vision of a dying planet earth when Pennsylvania already looks one? Next was that the film would be delayed a full year before release. That made sense because you don't want to release this film in the height of the summertime. Then right around October a smarmy film critic (sort of like me, but, you know, he gets paid...and he hated The Road) came bustling into a coffee shop I was sitting in looking like Christmas had been cancelled. He had just come from a preview screening of The Road and seemed offended by the images it had placed in his head, specifically because they were planning to release it around Thanksgiving. That cinched it for me and finally that year waiting ravenously paid off when I sat down to devour The Road.

The Road
by John Hillcoat
A man and his son wander in and out of towns, trying to stay in sight of a road that will lead them south. They're in America but it doesn't particularly matter. The world has ended; plants and animals are dead, as are most people. The few that remain are by and large cannibalistic scavengers who leave meal to meal. The man lives with the memory of his dead wife and knows that his role as a father is much more important than anything else. Not only does he have to teach his son about morality in a world where there is none but he has to keep him alive even as they encounter gangs, harsh weather, disease, starvation and unpredictable natural occurrences like forest fires and earthquakes. As they get further south and the man's health deteriorates he has to make sure he doesn't leave his boy at the mercy of the elements without instilling in him the right kind of knowledge and the right level of mistrust. As they encounter more people who are less monstrous than the gangs the boy comes to see that maybe there's hope for people after all.

Not much to it, really. On paper The Road sounds a mite aimless and in truth I was put off by the lack of continuity between the edits but that was quite literally one of two complaints I had. The Road the book has a linear structure but it is just a series of encounters between the man, his son and whatever new horror is over the horizon. So without McCarthy's voice dictating the proceedings the film does feel a little like recreation rather than reinterpretation. Honestly though I was sort of looking forward to that. John Hillcoat does what needed to be done with a book like The Road, which is gorgeously written and replaces lengthy passages with incredibly photographed exteriors - in essence trading one lushness for another. And the cinematography and design are really something. Javier Aguirresarobe's brilliant colour scheme matches the film's relationship with hope; sometimes it flickers, sometimes it's gone. The otherworldly amber that shows up in the sky and the water and eerie night. Further underscoring the importance of the film's thesis is Nick Cave & Warren Ellis' score which is a thing of minimalist genius and poignancy. Critics tended to harp on it for being too naked and emotional but I think it's the best work they've done (as well as Aquirresarobe, Hillcoat and Mortensen) and to see the movie as being too emotional or dire is to miss the point entirely. It's the end of the world! You didn't really think we'd all get ripped, grow mohawks and ride motorcycles, did you?
I think what probably caught people off guard is how The Road was advertised. I knew as soon as they appeared that the trailers featuring all the stock footage floods and fires was bullshit; a way to get the 2012 crowd into arthouses. Even Hillcoat lamented this decision; he directed the movie, he knew what it was like, he's gone on record as being opposed to CG-laden farces like Avatar on principle. The CGI in The Road is unobtrusive, which is how it should be always. Hillcoat puts so much stock in just the great locations and the prowess of his actors. The locations go a long way toward extending the feel of the movie. You're watching dead plants and grey skies for literally the entire film, which is meant to elicit feelings of despair. Personally I love the look of it and have always loved the look of landscapes overwhelmed by ice and dead trees. If you don't love the look instantly you've got to get through it, just like the boy and his father. The performances are, like the effects, subtle to the point that at times it's easy to forget you're watching people pretend. Bit players like Guy Pearce, Garrett Dillahunt and Michael K. Williams are awesome but the leads make the character actors seem almost small by comparison; though I have to say that they have one scene a piece and leave such a strong impression is really admirable. Garrett Dillahunt is our Warren Oates. Viggo Mortensen carries off the role of the father with such panache; I've seen The Road three times and I'm blown away by just how normal he is. Kodi-Smitt McPhee is great and I think someone has to be congratulated on just how like Charlize Theron, who plays his mother, he looks. Hillcoat and his leads make the familial relation heartbreaking, which is the point despite the overwhelming cries of "too much" from some critics. It's the end of the world, you're telling me you wouldn't get emotional? That's what I thought. So while I can see people being thrown by the rather grizzly implications of the cannibal gangs and the basements with people stored like meat, that's not what the film is about. Though my second point of contention is in the treatment of the cannibals. In the book there's a nightmarish episode involving a baby that Hillcoat removed in favour of a fast-paced non-sequitor; I get why he did it (the cruelty of the world was already well-established, making it almost redundant) but I still wish he had left it in.

The script makes it clear almost immediately what lies at the heart of the conflict. One of Mortensen's first lines is "the boy is my charge - if he has not the word of god, then god never spoke." Well guess what? God never spoke! Penhall focuses all his energy on making it clear that it's people who we answer to, not god. One could make the case that whatever brought about the walking end times that our heroes traipse through could have been prevented if the people in charge could have learned what the boy does by the film's conclusion. The film is about people and how crucial being humane is; the mock prayer midway through the film is as close to a message that the movie has: "Thanks....people." If The Road can be said to teach anything it's that though we've fucked up just about everything we as people have encountered, we have to work within it to help each other; people need to be nicer to people. And because the film's exclusive focus is on people and not the supernatural or superficial, the film is necessarily dark. I also think that considering that The Book Of Eli just came out, it's important to see films that don't put emphasis on re-fucking up the world the same we did last time. The Road posits that people fucked us all with their various habits (carried over in cannibalism - the capitalism of the post-apocalypse, if you'll allow) we need to abandon them if we have any hope of doing this again. There's a scene that takes place in a church towards the end in which the most memorable occurrence is the father spitting up blood - god's not helping him any. That said I'm in tune with the politics of the book and the film. The Road asks people to confront darkness; if you're alone in the dark, you tend to think of the things most dear to you and any film that encourages you to do that isn't really all that grim. If you leave The Road feeling depressed, chances are you don't believe in people.
This isn't a film for everyone but I will say it is a film for people I like. You have to be able to see through cannibals and starvation and greyness to be able to see the love between these two. That said the movie does cannibals and starvation and greyness quite well. It's like Time of the Wolf with twice the budget and as with that lovely and sorrowful tale, this is maybe my favorite kind of film. I can see where your complaints come in, but unless you wanted just a little more're wrong.

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