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Bob Doto [Celluloid 10.22.09] post apocalyptic movie review drama

Year: 2009
Directors: John Hillcoat
Writers: Joe Penhall & Cormac McCarthy
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Bob Doto
Rating: 8 out of 10

I judge every disaster film by one standard: facial hair. For instance, if during the apocalypse you take every opportunity to nix that end-of-the-world-stubble off your face, because God forbid you, the actor, look bad in a film, than I’m filing you under “Sucker.” Remember that scene in 28 Days Later when the handsome bed-headed lead wakes up to the most horrible of possible life sentences, including a pair of dead parents, and then runs into a bunch of other good looking girls and guys, and the first thing he does is shave off his five o’clock shadow? That was annoying. In THE ROAD, the ultra-human “Papa,” played humbly and heartfully by Viggo Mortensen, doesn’t shave his beard. But he almost does. And for me, therein lies a meta-tension.

In John Hillcoat’s THE ROAD, a sludgey apocalyptic tale of bonding between father and son, every inch of all that is potential geological mayhem has erupted (eerily set off screen) and has lead to the unraveling of Earth’s entire ecosystem. The threads that have kept the social fabric from disintegrating are no longer in place. Everything is dead. Trees are dead. Animals are dead. People have been reduced to parasitic subhumans. The Earth is hemorrhaging, literally cracking open, burning itself into something new, ridding itself of the failure that is humanity. Amidst this destitution a father and his son are walking south, pulling a cart, hiding from everyone. Like a tooth ache, you want the misery to go away, but secretly you indulge in the pain as it reminds you of how you used to be

For those of you who do not know, THE ROAD is based on a novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. The film is a stand-up retelling of McCarthy’s tale with only one exception: back story. One of the most notable aspects of McCarthy’s novel is the overt lack of background information. We’re in a vacuum, and no one is, or ever was, pretty. With the exception of maybe two pages of flashback, the reader is immersed in the home stretch of decay from the very beginning. Hillcoat chose to play with what could lay in the memory of Papa, and took advantage of the abilities of South African native Charlize Theron who play’s Papa’s wife. At first I was down on the broken family theme. It seemed like a weak effort to bring beauty to a story that thrives on its absence, a sort of “Now this is what really sucks about the apocalypse” add-on. I was preferring the novel’s minimalist approach to history over what appeared to be the film’s fleshing out of the pleasant bits. Ultimately, however, I was converted. Theron’s performance as “Wife” is so soulfully destroyed, she comes across more monster than spouse. That was an angle I hadn’t expected, and was glad to have witnessed.

But, there’s always that itch to sell an extra seat, and total implosions of the social rarely do. Truth be told, I’d hate to have been Hillcoat making this film. Big films have a horrendous record of taking a book’s subtle and internal tension, and farting it all over the silver screen in a boom of irrelevance (I Am Legend, anyone?). However, Hillcoat never gives into the demon of sensationalism, though he definitely flirts with it, if, ironically, in subtle ways. Take for instance Hillcoat’s handling of the “bad people.” As in the book, the bad people in the film are those who have succumbed to the lowest forms of their animal nature. They hunt, rape, and subsequently eat other human beings. In the film, all too often these people are portrayed just skew of goofy Southern yokles, nodding, for my liking, too close to a parroting of Deliverance. Of course Hillcoat never sinks to the depths of Mark Young’s Tooth and Nail, where bad people sharpen their teeth and wear silly face paint, but Hillcoat’s cannibals do have a slight caricature-ness to them. Not too much, but I can feel the pull to go there.

But, I’m a forgiving person. I know there are influences behind The Road other than Hillcoat’s, and I’m sure some of those people would’ve loved this film to fall into Fantasy Land, but to Hillcoat’s credit he holds on tight. For example, his take on that most intense of basement scenes is handled with such care and reserve I thought I might actually be reading the novel itself, instead of watching it redone. Hillcoat must have known it all along: what could you possibly show to send that particular ounce of carnage home any more than it already does on its own?

In the end I felt content with the butterflies this film left in my stomach. With supporting and fantastic performances by both Robert Duvall, done up to be as grizzled as a Civil War boot, and an exactly-what-I-wanted performance by Guy Pearce to sew the whole experience shut, I’d say you’re bound to leave the theater pleased with the quality of the film, hoping to God the world doesn’t go down like that, and calling your loved one so you can snuggle up cozy with them in bed. Remember, the Earth is badder than you could ever be. Do not mess with Her. You will lose.

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wilcoy (12 years ago) Reply

I'd have to say that is one of the better written reviews i've come across on the internet. I like your style Bob hope to see more reviews in the future.


donc48 (12 years ago) Reply

One of the very few reviews I have ever read all the way though, and it sounds like the reviewer read the book which I’m finding is rare. A couple of things the wife doesn’t come off good in the book, it only a few pages, she gives up pretty early.
I’m still not sure I’m going to see The Road, I saw Saving Private Ryan when it first came out and it was so realistically depressing I‘ve never seen it since, and The Road will much more realistically depressing. Good Review


Phoebe (12 years ago) Reply

I have read The Road...twice. I actually began re-reading it once I finished it. Needless to say, I am a big fan of the story. I thought it to be one of the most realistic, unromantic depictions of the apocalypse.

I am very excited to see the film. I suspect it will end up topping my list of best post-apocalyptic films.


Ben Austwick (12 years ago) Reply

Brilliant review. Like people say above it's good to see the film compared to the book for once, it's the most important thing a review of The Road should do.

I'm disappointed I missed this at the London Film Festival, but on the other hand considering how many sleepless nights the book gave me I'm not sure I really want to see it... Especially after reading this.


M. (12 years ago) Reply

Even adding this review to the ledger, I still don't have high expectations for this film. But here's hoping...

In defense of the wife [SPOILERS:]

I just finished reading the novel for the fourth time. In my previous readings, I too had negative feelings for the wife. But that's because I was still piecing together the nature of the Catastrophe, and looking for hints as to what may happen after the novel's end.
But this time I read THE ROAD as nothing but a glimpse of the complete extinction of humankind. From the beginning the Man knows he will die within the year. He and the Boy are not heading south to look for survivors. (There are no survivors. Every last human is on their way to oblivion.) They are on the road simply because they cannot survive another northern winter. They could not have made the trip in previous years because there were too many predators alive in the south. The Man had to wait for the "blood cults to consume themselves."

They have been living in this ruined world (which all humans will disappear from) for around eight-to-eleven years. And the wife has been dead for a year or two. [I guage this by the fact taht she lived to see the boy reach an age where he wouldn't immediately be butchered, the slavers would keep him as a catamite (sex-slave) before eating him.]

The wife DID NOT give up "pretty early."

All of the Man's pre-Incident memories of his wife are positive. It's the memories of her life in the Ash that make her seem negative. But we can't expect that she would be anything but bitter and brittle faced with rape and torture. Holding her attitude and her suicide against her would be as absurd as condemning the Man for breaking his promise to the Boy (not "euthanizing" him and leaving him alone in a literal Hell-world.)

These are desperate, broken people who have endured what I could not endure. The wife shows a strength and conviction that is missing in the Man, and the Man shows a strength and conviction missing in the wife.


Stalker (12 years ago) Reply

Hi guys.
About The Road (in English, please) :


Tom (12 years ago) Reply

Q: I did not read the book but have seen the movie, which was good. But I think some editing cut out some sequences which I have a question about. Why did some of the adults have their thumbs cut off?


timmy t (12 years ago) Reply

Haven't read the book but a few things in the movie bothered:

- why bother leaving the (conveniently) fully stocked bomb shelter? Stupid.
- farming humans. Why bother? Too much energy would be expended feeding this people.
- if everything is dead due to this unexplained catastophre - plants, animals, most humans - how can these people have survived?
- this sissy kid that looks like he's 11 years old but acts like he's 5.

I just found it to be overrated.


peter loew (10 years ago) Reply

tom - thumbs cut off - for food (?)

timmy t - they left the shelter because they heard a dog outside; dogs are indicative (in this film) of cannibals hunting for people to eat.

farming humans - yeah, I thought that was a bit non-sensical also, but it sure made for some horrific extrapolations when the viewer thinks about it.

- they've survived on preserved food (canned goods, discovered supplies, etc - scrounging to survive).

- the kid. yeah, it was the actors first film. His behavior is an amalgam of his parents teaching him everything he knows; since he was born after the catastrophe he would never have gone to school or had anything resembling a normal upbringing.

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