The Road (2009)

The Road

Is it really worth it? With no hope or catharsis, John Hillcoat’s The Road is a grimly nihilistic portrait of suffering in the face of the apocalypse.

The Road

The Road To Nowhere by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Within two minutes of the titles rolling, the cataclysm strikes and we are thrown into two hours of unremitting bleakness and gloom. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormack McCarthy, The Road is, I am assured, a faithful adaptation of the book’s desolate father-and-son journey as they survive another post-apocalyptic winter of starvation, marauding cannibals and despair. Somewhere between the visual lensing of Aleskandr Sokurov‘s Father And Son and the bleached-out high-jinx of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, John Hillcoat’s film is a murky morass of dead-flesh beiges and fetid browns as the unhappy twosome struggle to find a reason for living, hobbling from unwanted dusty crumb to dank sewerage shelter.

While I enjoyed Hillcoat’s previous film, The Proposition, where a duel between civilisation and savagery plays out in the Australian outback under similarly unforgiving skies, The Road has little of its primal beauty or blistering vitality. The Road ‘s beauty lies in its locations. Filmed in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as well as disused parts of Pennsylvania and Oregon, it is startlingly open and expansive, bringing huge tracts of abandoned American dystopia into its dusky light.

Yet it is the relationship between father and son, superbly played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, which takes centre stage, as the father attempts to safeguard his young charge, all the time “keeping the fire alive” and tutoring him in the world’s harsh new realities. The son becomes the film’s moral touchstone, as he pleads with his father to show humanity to Robert Duvall’s starving vagabond and to return to the wronged thief his stolen belongings. Yet while the interdependence of the duo is touching, the relationship goes nowhere, continually oscillating between the son’s boyish hope and the father’s worldly despair. It is perhaps the multivalency of the film, allowing multiple layers of metaphor, which dilutes the potency of their relationship, turning them at times into grubby cyphers. Do father and son cling so desperately to each other because they’ve been abandoned by Charlize Theron‘s uncaring, “fire-less” mother, walking like beauty into the night?

The film’s misogyny, with its dearth of (likable) female characters, is matched by its ecological ambivalence. Trees are dying and ash hangs in the air. But how do we explain nature’s slow death? Or even the glimpse of marsh reeds and an ocean bird? Is this really an environmental disaster movie or is the cataclysm a metaphor for more personal catastrophes? Certainly, the noiseless amber-hued inferno seems more spiritual than real. Perhaps this road to recovery is one polluted man’s attempt to keep his innocence alive as he finds his way back from dependency and/or despair to civilisation and salvation? Or is this man’s search for meaning in existential badlands a defiant challenge to an absent, indifferent God?

Whatever the metaphor (The Road doesn’t have enough intellectual fodder to sustain deeper exploration), salvation, as they reach the coast, is dispiritingly empty. The ocean provides no solace or sustenance. Only failure and death. The son must continue alone or, reaching the end of hope, end it. The screenwriter, Joe Penhall, describes the ending as “uplifting”, but for me, with only the film to go on, it is, at best, ambiguous. The all-too-convenient, ready-made family are disconcertingly unreadable. Was it Guy Pearce’s veteran who robbed them? Were mother and daughter involved in some elaborate charade, playing fox in a cannibalistic hunt?  That they can lure the innocent so easily into their trap proves perhaps the boy is not ready to go it alone and that he has failed to learn from his father a healthy mistrust of others.

Relentlessly dreary, The Road veers precariously between eschatalogical pondering and torture-porn with neither the philosphical clout nor the bites and frights to make either really work. With no hope or catharsis, the grim nihilism of The Road makes you question if all this suffering really is worth it?

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