Easily one of the most depressing movies of 2009, The Road places the audience in the middle of the ultimate hellhole, a desolate, post-apocalyptic Earth that has long since died. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, the author of No Country for Old Men, The Road is one of the better movies of the year - but it doesn't quite live up to its source material.
In The Road, Viggo Mortensen stars as a man who has lost everything but his son. The world has died due to some unknown disaster; all plant and wildlife has long since vanished, leaving an arid, gray and desolate landscape where survivors scrape for canned food - or eat each other. The man and his son, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, travel along a road toward the California coast, with meager hope that the weather is warmer and the food more plentiful. But the journey is full of dangers, including the weather, vandals and cannibals.
Mortensen turns in a fine performance as the man, not his career best but a heartfelt one nonetheless. He embraces the ruggedness of his character, of a man who has lost everything (Charlize Theron plays his wife, who loses her will to live years earlier), who wants to die but doesn't know how, who wants his son to survive even though they are both guaranteed a life of misery and starvation. The performance is subdued, and as a result isn't as memorable as some this year, but it is still incredibly good. Look for Mortensen this Oscar season.
Smit-McPhee is pretty good as the boy, though his character isn't nearly as fleshed out as the man's.
The movie itself looks and feels great; director John Hillcoat (The Proposition, another superbly bleak drama) adequately captures the mood of the book with surprising detail. The book is incredible, but also very simple; it's a quick read with little dialogue or description, and yet McCarthy, one of the best authors writing today, creates a full world from his prose. Hillcoat translates the novel faithfully, with the help of Joe Penhall, who penned the script; the world Hillcoat has created is the world I pictured when reading the book. The drumming sound of doom resonates throughout the otherwise quiet picture, and the movie is as bleak as movie's come.
Most importantly, Hillcoat stays true to the emotional core of the novel. The bond between Mortensen and the boy is believable, and the paranoia the man masks in his efforts to save his son just as strong. The Road is one of the most emotionally powerful movies of the year.
Unfortunately, The Road has two things working against it. One, fans of the book are bound to find flaws, something that was completely absent in written form. McCarthy's work is so perfect that any alternate version was bound to be worse, and The Road doesn't avoid that fate. As faithful as an adaptation as this is, both literally and emotionally, the lack of the man's inner monologue weaken a few scenes that were more impactful during the book. To maintain pacing, certain parts are reduced or cut, like the boat chapter which had much more weight in the novel. The Road is never flat, but at times it feels flat compared to its source material. Furthermore, on a more superficial level, the lack of explanation of the world's demise is much more frustrating in the movie.
Two, those who didn't read the book may not appreciate The Road nearly as much. The movie is compelling, but, just like the book, it is about a man and a boy traveling a road toward a goal that really isn't much of a goal. While there action sequences and other memorable moments, The Road has a very simple plot and story to tell; non-fans may not understand what the big deal is, or find the ending particularly satisfying (don't worry, the ending is much better than the one in No Country for Old Men).
Oddly, the most impressive aspect of The Road is the makeup artistry. The makeup applied to Mortensen, and more significantly Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce and Molly Parker, is incredibly detailed and believable; if you didn't know these actors were in the movie ahead of time, you may not realize who they are until they open their mouths.
The Road is a movie that exceeds expectations, but still can't quite meet the incredibly high bar set by the novel. Nonetheless, the movie is a refreshing change of pace and easily one of the better movies of 2009.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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