Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Road: Distilled Despair, With A Hope Chaser

It's as if someone had taken every human moment out of 2012 - Roland Emmerich's apocalyptic disasterfest - and put them into this movie, another end-of-times story, this one penned originally by Cormac McCarthy, which focuses so intensely on how one man and child deal with a world dying by inches at the end of an apocalyptic event, that it lacks even a single CGI disaster scene.

Which isn't to say that the movie doesn't have its own cinematic moments of gray-on-gray beauty: a broken freeway spanning an abyss, a business tower in flames, a mall in destruction. What haunts these scenes are their little familiarities, carefully composed and delicately photographed, as our ordinary world is painted black: a washed out billboard, tilted telephone poles along a residential street, an ATM sign in a vandalized movie theater. But where 2012 gave us an irrepressible orgy of irrelevant specifics, The Road is a lazy, meandering journey of desperate vagueness: we're never told what caused the apocalypse and why only a few survivors remain. All we're told is that if they want to live, they need to be ever vigilant, looking out for scraps of food and wary of bands of ruthless, roving cannibals. Their main asset seems to be stupid luck. And how they got here seems to be irrelevant: whatever's caused this condition of complete despair and has put this father and son on a road of survival is merely the human condition, and our own human failing.

The Road starts us in medias res: a disheveled old man and a young boy wake up in rags along the road; they are obviously running from something in a desolate landscape of burned trees and destroyed cars. Through flashback we're filled in with some of the missing pieces, though not all - the young boy is the man's son, who was born soon after some apocalyptic event destroyed most of the exterior world: killed the animals and vegetation and scorched the earth. The man and his wife lived on scraps, holed up in their home, for several years after - but eventually, as life became too tough, as neighbors turned menacing in their search for what little food remained, the wife decided it was better to leave this world than to continue suffering its cruelties. But the man refused: and now, faced with nothing but evil and despair, he must protect his son from roving bands of cannibals, and try to keep them both alive in a dying world.

That's heady stuff, and this isn't necessarily a film for those looking for some holiday cheer. There isn't far one can go with complete destruction, but McCarthy isn't after the entertaining nihilism of say, a Mad Max movie, or the clever spiritualism of M. Night Shyamalan. Instead, this is a religious metaphor about a test of faith: when everything is stripped from him - not only his own life, but the entirety of humanity - can our hero continue on - does he have the strength not to take his own life? There is even a Hieronymus Bosch-like scene of hell, in the basement of a house (that a man like this should have known better than to enter), where cannibals are keeping their naked captives to gnaw on for supper at their leisure. Meanwhile, the man and his son roam the empty world that's become a kind of purgatory - a mere waiting place between the memory of their former life, and death. (So maybe it is a holiday movie after all?)

This is truly a movie carried by the sets and the acting - both of which are superb, with Vitto Mortensen drawing us into the character from the first few scenes. Most of the movie is spent wandering, simply trying to survive and find food, and the man is haunted by dreams of his former life. The true inheritor of this world, however, is the son, not the man - the son who confesses to his father that it's really he that has to worry about everything. Despite the man's wariness, the son hasn't lost his basic sense of human kindness, and eventually, one realizes that even in this desolate half of a life, the son will be the one to create a new civilization.

It's only when we get to the end of the movie - which is too rushed to fully tie everything together that it's trying to - that we find out where those elements of civilization come from: from the hope of human kindness kept alive inside, even in the most dire of circumstances. The irony is that the father must extinguish his ability to trust, if he's to keep himself and his son alive, even if his son's only hope is to maintain his ability to judge human nature, and know who to trust. At the end, we realize that if only the father had been able to risk trusting someone as well, they might have both been saved.

This movie, which was slated for release last year, and then pushed back, is clearly meant to be Oscar bait. It's a dark horse, to be sure, but what it has going for it is a very Christian moral, laid out simply and starkly. I'm not convinced (the movie does too neat a job delineating between the opposing forces, when I believe the reality would be the dynamics of the shades of gray), but it sure is effective story telling. When I left the theater, even the big men in the audience weren't afraid to admit they'd been crying.

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