There aren’t a whole lot of directors I can think of now that could pull off the bleak and brutal world of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel better than “The Proposition” director John Hillcoat.
There are a couple of filmmakers no longer with us, however, who I feel could’ve done something with “The Road.” The first is Stanley Kubrick, who would’ve been drawn to the dehumanization of society. The second is Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian master who would have seen the story’s more spiritual side, similar to his 1979 masterwork “Stalker.”
Hillcoat’s film is comperable to both director’s work (although his vision feels more Tarkovsky than Kubrick). That’s a tall order. His film works primarily because of its’ sparse storytelling and focused narrative.
Not that there’s much to clutter the film up. The film follows a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) on a desolate road to the sea. The world has ended (the film doesn’t say how, but one guesses nukes were involved). All that’s left of man are lone travelers and pockets of people who’ll survive any way they can. His wife gone (she is played by a vivid Charlize Theron in flashback, and she would rather die than live a non-life), he’s alone in teaching his son how to survive in this new world. That means being vigilante of people they meet, and two bullets in his gun…in case.
Screenwriter Joe Penhall takes McCarthy’s tale and boils it down into its’ simplest form narratively, while also crafting a compelling psychological drama out of the story that’s there. That includes a nerve-racking scene of the two in a house of cannibals (who leave their prey chained up in the cellar), and interactions with an old man (the superb and barely recognizable Robert Duvall) and a desparate thief (Michael K. Williams) that will test the two’s character and whether they still “hold that fire” within them.
Mortensen is a force of nature when playing this type of conflict- see “The Lord of the Rings” and “Eastern Promises” if you don’t believe me- and he is at his best in this role when showing the struggle to hold onto your humanity when giving in to chaos would be easier. He’s matched scene-for-scene by Smit-McPhee, who has to grow up fast and sometimes be the voice of reason when his father stops being one of the good guys. But it’s the moments when the son is more like the child he is that’ll stick with you; in the last half hour in particular, you won’t be able to take your eyes off of him, when he needs to take care of the father that’s taken care of him. It’s unnerving and a performance of soul-stirring confidence.
All of this is vividly seen by Hillcoat, who could’ve just created it all on a sound stage or through CGI, but instead took cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe to isolated parts of Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Louisiana, and had him shoot them (and the character’s journey) in the bleakest and most forboding way. No other post-apocalypse has looked so hopeless. But hope- however slight- does remain. Not just in the eyes of Mortensen and Smit-McPhee but in the haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which illuminates both the darkness and the light of McCarthy’s unflinching story, as told in Hillcoat’s rewarding movie.