A post-apocalyptic landscape is not exactly a road less travelled when it comes to storytelling and is, indeed, a staple setting of the science fiction and fantasy genre, from classic novels (such as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and HG Wells’s Things to Come) through cinema (from Mad Max to the I Am Legend variants, based on Richard Matheson’s novella) and more recently video games (the Fallout series) and comic books (such as Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead). But whereas many of these tales are adventure stories, John Hillcoat’s big screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road is as faithful in its dramatic bleakness to acclaimed author Cormac McCarthy’s (No Country for Old Men) bestseller as it can be.
And yet despite being set in a world without hope, The Road is far from a forlorn experience, thanks in main to an engrossing narrative, which thankfully disregards the usual spectacular trappings of Hollywood’s post-apocalyptic special effects (think the visually stunning but emotionally barren The Day after Tomorrow) to concentrate on the characters, which is supported by captivating performances from the principal cast. Viggo Mortensen and moppet newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee are exceptional as the father and son survivors wandering the desolate landscape of a world devastated by fire and earthquakes. Widely unknown before the Lord of the Rings films despite a lengthy filmography, Mortensen has quickly become one of America’s greatest contemporary acting talents and his emotionally restrained style is well suited to the role of a father who will do anything to ensure the safety of his 10-year-old angel.
Despite having less screen time than Mortensen, Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall put in equally memorable performances, as Mortensen’s ill-fated wife and a wizened old man that father and son come across on their travels respectively, showing just why they are such well respected actors. Guy Pearce, reuniting with Hillcoat after their turns on Aussie Western The Proposition, and Michael K Williams (Omar in TV’s The Wire) make notable cameos and round off the better-known names in the cast.
One criticism you could level at the film is that it features a score written by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (another Hillcoat reunion from the Proposition days). While in itself this is no bad thing - the music is predictably wonderful - it tends to undermine the realism of the film. Perhaps this is something of a moot point, after all the film is set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, but then again maybe no score at all would have better suited the film’s downbeat story.
While many films of this type offer some glimmer of hope, The Road is perhaps more realistic (or should that be nihilistic?) in its harrowing depiction of a cataclysmic future (mirrored by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe’s gloomy visuals, which are bereft of all but the most minimalist colour). Humanity has been reduced to its basest level, scavenging, looting, raping, killing and, in some cases (as illustrated in the film’s most disturbing scenes), feeding on each other. And yet within the darkness lies an irresistible sliver of light, found in the boy’s innocence, the father’s resolute attitude and their few acts of decency.
Perhaps humanity can be saved after all…
Read our interview with John Hillcoat in the winter 09 issue of Electric Sheep, which looks at what makes a cinematic outlaw: read about the misdeeds of low-life gangsters, gentlemen thieves, deadly females, modern terrorists, cop killers and vigilantes, bikers and banned filmmakers. Also in this issue: the art of Polish posters according to Andrzej Klimowski, Andrew Cartmel discusses The Prisoner and noir comic strips!