Road, The (2009)

Rated: R for some violence, disturbing images and language.
Length: 111 minutes
Grade: DD-DD=D
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $25 million (8 U.S., 17 Intl.)

Written by: Joe Penhall (First major script), based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses)
Directed by: John Hillcoat (The Proposition)
Starring: Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee
With: Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Garret Dillahunt, and Charlize Theron.

In the aftermath of an unspecified global eco-disaster, a father and his son strive to stay alive despite a dreary world with scarce food and few survivors, many of whom have resorted to cannibalism.

Entertainment Value: D
I had heard about this movie and that it was fantastic, receiving high critical acclaim from virtually all reviewers and being lauded as the better version of The Book of Eli. What I discovered was a disappointing, nonsensical, frustrating post-apocalyptic flop. I admit that whatever everyone else seems to have seen here may simply have escaped me. Or…this is just bad. Nothing in this movie makes sense, and that’s mostly because the nature of the disaster is never given. Why are these people so persistently dirty despite the presence of abundant water? In a world with mere thousands of people left, why are grocery carts the preferred method of transportation? If cold weather is threatening your life every day, wouldn’t you migrate south? Where did all the bullets and guns go such that this man is left with only two shells for a revolver? Why can’t a 12-year-old boy read the labels on a soup can? And why, oh why in the world would you simply abandon that treasure trove of a fallout shelter once you had found it in the first place? But I have to give the makers one massive and gutsy kudo. I was impressed to the point of falling over with laughter that they still succeeded at getting product placements into this bleak future world: Del Monte, Coca-Cola, Jack Daniels, Vitamin Water, and Cheetos all were featured as brands in this movie. What’s that sales pitch sound like? “Hey guys, we’re making a movie about cannibals and suicide set in a world destroyed by something like global warming. You wanna be the only surviving food items?” This may be for Viggo what Nell was for Jodie Foster, a tremendous performance in a film people somehow feel ashamed to admit is terrible. “Pay chicka-pay, Viggo.”

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol B , Sex/Nudity D, Violence F+, Language D
Some drinking of alcohol, some nudity (although never erotic in any way), and enough bad language to rate an R (although only about 10-15 words in the whole movie). The real issue here is violence and thematic content. There isn’t much actual gore, although there are some murders. Rather, it’s the images of a destroyed earth and emaciated, enslaved, and about to be slaughtered people and the constant discussion of cannibalism and suicide that makes this a movie not for kids at all. Not to worry, since kids will hate it anyhow. R is exactly right.

Significant Content: D
There are good guys and bad guys in the world. The father thinks that good guys protect what’s theirs, but the son thinks that good guys share with other people. Left to their own, most humans will simply become the most evil of all possible alternatives. Paranoid people sometimes stay alive and sometimes kill other paranoid people.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Since I saw this movie after Book of Eli, I of course think everything here is a rip-off of that film. If you saw The Road first (and it appears to have been written and made first), you’d likely feel the exact opposite is true. In any case, it’s very, very strange for two movies to be so nearly identical in style, content, and even basic theme (If you do evil in the name of protecting good, have you done good or evil?). The creation of a world is partially engaging, but also highly alienating (at least for me, my wife, and my father) because of all the inconsistencies in constructing it.

Discussion Questions:
~Do you ever think about what life would be like after an apocalypse like this? In that future, do you tend to believe things would recover to something like the present condition or that things would regress to a jungle-like struggle for survival? Why are post-apocalyptic movies almost always so pessimistic? If things were bad, do you believe you would be capable of surviving? If so, what sort of strategies would you employ?
~When the mother makes her choice, do you feel it makes sense? Why is her choice so awful but the father’s choice so virtuous?
~Are there any things worse than dying? Is suicide ever a legitimate moral alternative? The father is convinced that a certain kind of life is better not to live at all, but he doesn’t feel that their current life has fallen far enough from what they used to have to justify that choice. What do you think?
~When the father explains that it’s a good sign to dream about bad things, but a bad sign if you dream about good things, what is he getting at? Do you agree with his assessment?
~There is a constant tension between the pragmatic father doing whatever seems necessary to protect his son and the son who seems to want to be generous and loving toward other people, even ones who threaten them. Who do you think is right? Is this meant to be an allegory for the fight between pragmatists (conservatives) and idealists (liberals) in today’s harsh international reality?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Drinking the Coke.
~Discarding the wedding ring and picture of his wife. Can our memories and emotional attachment to the past ever be a hindrance to us?
~The mother leaving.
~The dungeon of people.
~The encounter with the thief at the beach. Is his defense that he didn’t harm the boy adequate? What do you think of the father’s actions?
Overall Grade: D
The Book of Eli is much better, although you should know that the vast majority of film critics disagree with me here. It’s not the first time they’re all wrong.


Naum said...

Guess you're not a Cormac McCarthy fan…

Was a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel…

…and as I figured, one that would be difficult to translate to the screen. Also, hard for me to place myself in the seat of someone who hadn't read the book (which is a remarkable book IMV).

Focus really isn't on the post-apocalyptic setting — that just a backdrop for the father-son relationship. I was concerned that with a high profile female lead, that too much emphasis and attention would be garnered on those flashbacks — and though I was surprised that it was not more excessive, judging from your review, I see it still colored your perception.

I think the movie captured the setting, but visual presentation is quite different than the literary experience. Reading the book, you're overcome with the father's unwavering devotion and love for his son. And seedlings of hope in a world that by all sensibility is hopelessly doomed.

Andrew Tallman said...

Yeah, I think I probably came to this movie from exactly the worst pathway: I saw Eli first, and I haven't read the book. My suspicion is that most critics both read the book and saw it first, hence their view of the movie benefited from primacy and favorable prejudice due to their love of the book.

Were the details which made no sense in the movie more apt or explained in the book? Was the nature of the "cataclysm" made more clear?

Also, there's one moment with Duvall in the movie where he alludes to people thinking the catastrophe (or its impendingness) was a con or fraud, which I ignored as a very light allusion to global warming. Is that in the book at all?

Naum said...

It's been awhile since I read the book, but IIRC in the book, Duvall character, (and I was surprised here too, that a actor with prestige like Duvall got shorted a bit), he traveled a bit with father & son. He also introduced another dynamic with the son's understanding of "good guys" v. "bad guys". Remember, the boy has never known a pre-catastrophe world, other than stories from dad.

The nature of the "cataclysm" is never revealed in the novel either — funny, it's kind of distressing in the initial pages, but you lose focus of it quickly (at least for me) in lieu of "what happens next" suspense, and what will they find. For some reason, I pictured them on the western U.S. side, heading SW, not SE as in the movie.