TIFF09 REVIEW: The Road [2009]

“I don’t want to just survive”

Why do the Weinsteins continue to do it? They buy and finance great stuff, they have an eye for talent, and yet they squander it so many times. When I first heard that the Cormac McCarthy adapted, John Hillcoat directed The Road was being pushed back from last year’s Oscar contention—yes, last year—I just shook my head wondering how those two brothers could ruin it. Was it post-production that needed extra time to complete or did the volatile big men hate the cut and decide to rape and pillage the footage into mediocre drivel that would make less money than if they just released the director’s vision, something that would make cash based on his previous film, The Proposition, alone? This is a post-apocalyptic tale about the traveling and survival of a man and his son, hiding from the cannibalistic population starving for meat. It screams dark, intense, and intelligent, rides on the coattails of a Best Picture winner the last time a McCarthy novel was given a big screen transformation, and has badass Viggo Mortensen, one of the best actors working today, at the front. I was seriously ready to jump Bob Weinstein four rows in front of me at the North American premiere in Toronto if it turned out bad.

Thankfully, despite a trailer that was cut to bring in disaster film audiences, Bobby was safe from my wrath because it appeared his brother and he let Hillcoat’s vision stick, creating one of the best films of the year thus far. Please do not take the preview as gospel, because it does a terrible job marketing the movie. This is an independent production with very dark tones—one scene with a basement full of people held captive, thin and missing limbs, as food storage for the monsters living above is just one example—as well as a riveting story dealing with life, death, family, and sacrifice. The make of a father is tested when the world is at an end. If it is between putting a bullet into the head of your child rather than allow him to be eaten, one must come to grips with mortality and pride. If the world around you is disappearing, burning, becoming a land of criminals, is it good enough to just survive? When you get away from whatever trouble is in your backyard, is it enough when you just have to continue running with a new test awaiting you? There is no safe haven; no piece of earth hidden from the horrors that have taken over … to live is to run.

Don’t be surprised when the big names you heard were in the film don’t appear until late or show up for very brief stints when they do. Some are seen only in flashbacks, others are blips on the radar as “The Man” and his “Son” journey, day by day, to live for the next. The Road is all about Viggo and young Kodi Smit-McPhee, (who is great—many are hailing him as a revelation, but I think time will tell on that one), as they come across allies as well as their share of villains too. Small roles notwithstanding, both Garret Dillahunt, as a hick trucker looking for red meat of any kind, and Robert Duvall, as an old vagabond trying to mind his own business in the wasteland, are outstanding. Especially Duvall, who I’ll admit has been phoning in some performances of late with too much gravitas. His “Old Man”—can you sense a theme with the character names—is subtle and real, wrinkles and crags making up his face, dirt and grime coating it all. Hillcoat knows how to let an environment consume his viewers, leaving nothing to be pretty for pretty’s sake. Like his Australian western of two years ago, the lack of showers and clean, running water is noticeable throughout.

There aren’t any explosions or big time battles between good and evil; all those shots of news footage used in the trailer as though our central family watched them on television do not exist. One day a husband and his pregnant wife were enjoying their lives when disaster struck. It doesn’t matter what the cause was or where it started, all we need to be aware of is that the destruction was all encompassing, worldwide, and unstoppable. The morality of letting a child be born into a life of fear and death becomes an early theme, the birth of Smit-McPhee’s character a question mark in his first days. Going through so much for that son, Mortensen lives for nothing else, his own life expendable as long as when he goes he knows the boy has a chance. What chance that is, no one knows. The next day could bring the discovery of a hidden bunker full of non-perishables; it could bring a loner vagrant passing by while they sleep to steal all they have accumulated; or it could mean seeing the enemy over the hills, on the verge of discovering them, causing their lives’ worth to be left in favor of a rapid getaway. The real beauty of the film is how it never lulls or takes a shortcut. You will be on the edge of your seat for the duration, waiting to see when the moment will come that they can’t get away.

A story of hope, it is also one of hardship and sacrifice. Some risk everything for another; some risk themselves in order to survive. When the choice becomes finding a man to eat or take from an unsuspecting child, sometimes you have to do the lesser of two evils no matter how much of your soul it takes with it. Mortensen embodies these sentiments, but so do others along the way. I must mention Michael K. Williams as “The Thief”, a man so lost on his own journey of survival that he just can’t help himself. You know that he is a man of honor and kindness that had no choice, but then you must think of the fact that he did, he could have allowed himself to die rather than take from innocents. But that’s the rub, no one is innocent, not even “The Boy” as evidenced when Smit-McPhee yells at his father to say that he also must face what’s going on each day. Viggo isn’t shielding him from the terrors around every corner; just because he is young doesn’t mean he hasn’t grown up quick; it’s all he could do to stay sane and move along with all the pains of his past and knowledge of those still to come. It’s a tough watch, but well worth the time and effort to see a true masterpiece of tone and humanity—the good parts and the bad.

The Road 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival


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