The long, hard road to disaster film utopia

29 January 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Perhaps there’s something inside us all that secretly wants to see the world destroyed. Year after year, audiences around the world shell out big bucks to witness the latest and greatest in CGI technology digitally erase our very existence. From the Michael ‘Awesome’ Bay laugh-fest that was Armageddon—even Bruce Willis uncharacteristically sucked in it—to the moronic styling of Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, we’re constantly bombarded in theatres by soulless depictions of the potential end of human existence with little to no variation in theme or substance.

But despite Hollywood’s obsession with the end of civilisation, these films repeatedly fail to dig deeper than the explosions and destruction we can see in their trailers, consistently managing to evade the emotional and psychological issues that would inevitably follow the end of the world as we know it.

Enter Australian director John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s universally-acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road, a tense and thoroughly depressing survival drama that explores the emotional weight of the end of the world against themes of hope, morality and death. Set years after the end of civilisation as we know it, The Road follows an unnamed father and son through a famine-stricken post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of the salvation of warmer southern coastlines. Played brilliantly by consistently impressive Viggo Mortensen and young Australian talent Kodi Smit-McPhee, the father and son hold on to their last vestiges of hope as their situation grows worse with each passing day on the road.

Almost as an act of defiance to the prevalence of the disaster film in modern culture—the genre even got its own spoof filmThe Road never directly proclaims the nature of the cataclysmic event that has scorched the sky to charcoal and ash, killed off almost all the crops and wildlife, and turned survivors into cannibalistic monsters. It’s a ballsy move for audiences who are usually spoon-fed exposition from the crazy scientist whose predictions all come true, but it quickly pulls into focus what the film is really about: the bond between a father and his son, and the depravity that comes when all hope is lost.

Themes of hope and morality—or the disintegration of morality—play important roles in The Road, separating the father-son duo from the hopeless stragglers they encounter on their journey and the evil, nomadic, cannibalistic hunting packs that lurk at every turn. It’s a cold and disturbing word they live in, scavenging food when they can, finding shelter under sheets and tarps and possessing only two bullets that serve as a constant reminder of their ‘Plan B’ that is almost forced into effect numerous times in the film, the suicide route, which we later learn through flashbacks was one the boy’s mother took some time ago.

Hillcoat sets up his characters goals, back-story and world very quickly with these flashbacks to before and during the event that changed the world, adding an emotional weight and believability to The Man’s transformation from devoted husband and father to stone-cold survivalist. Viggo Mortensen is once again in fine form on The Road, further cementing his role as one of the most transformative character actors in the business. His utter devotion to the role, which off-camera reportedly included sleeping in a tarp and refusing to change his clothes for the duration of production, gives his performance a genuine edge that provides not one moment where the believability of The Man’s devotion to his son falters. It’s a complicated and contemplative performance Mortensen pulls out of his hat, the type that could easily nab him his second Oscar nomination for best actor.

Similarly impressive in The Road is the work of Kodi Smit-McPhee and Charlize Theron, both turning in highly emotional performances that form the heart and soul of The Road. While Theron’s role as wife and mother to the father-son duo is barely present in the novel, it’s been beefed up considerably in the adaptation to strengthen the sense of duty The Man feels to fulfil his wife’s final wishes for their son. Her presence is felt considerably often in the film through the flashback sequences, imparting a sense of mournful loss in The Man. Kodi Smit-McPhee is also in fine form as The Boy, easily conveying the confusing range of emotions his character feels, from his loss of innocence to his idealistic compassion. A bright future in Hollywood awaits Kodi, recently nabbing the hotly-contested role of Oskar (retitled Owen) in the American remake of cult Swedish vampire flick Let the Right One In.

While the films central cast gives the film its emotional backbone, it’s the star studded supporting cast that defines and fills The Road with genuine believability. Robert Duvall’s unrecognizable turn as a blind wandering refugee is heartbreaking to witness, while Michael K. Williams (perhaps best known as Omar Little of The Wire fame) strips back the layers (literally) and exposes the fear of the road, and it’s capacity to change even the most morally upstanding of men to savages. While their morality and ‘fire’ is the last barrier that separates the man and boy from the savage cannibals that roam the road, these scavenging stragglers highlight the moral changes that have bitterly transformed the father, emphasising the widening gap between his decaying morals and his son’s youthful, selfless, yet naive compassion.

The striking visuals Hillcoat works with are incredibly impressive considering the film’s intentionally depressively muted visual palette. The juxtaposition of colour Hillcoat employs, particularly in the opening string of vibrantly coloured pre-devastation memories, works incredibly well at instilling a visual sense of loss to the film that goes far beyond words. These visual cues are reproduced in some of the more extreme episodes of violence in the film, making them stand out visually amidst the desaturated hues of the road. Hillcoat’s painstakingly crafted landscape shots are also a visual marvel, from burnt out office towers to barren and ashen tree-lines to eerily empty towns and cities that serve as constant reminders of the still-decaying world.

But despite its incredible cast, direction and fresh ideas, The Road is not an easy film to watch. It’s bleak, often shocking in its horrific delivery, and thoroughly depressing, taking you on a emotional rollercoaster ride with far fewer peaks than troughs. Certain scenes where the father and son contemplate suicide down the barrel of a gun are confronting and painful to witness.

The film also suffers somewhat in its narrative styling, never forming a cohesive whole story, but rather feeling like a series of interrelated set pieces designed to push the character’s journey on the road to its completion. While this certain style of episodic narrative has worked well recently with films such as The Hurt Locker, The Road does at times feel disjointed in its approach due to the similarly jarring and shifting tone, which pushes the film slightly off-key at integral points.

Despite its few flaws, prolonged post-production and repeatedly delayed release schedule, The Road is a finely crafted film that examines the oft ignored realities of the end of the world. Oozing dedication and genuine love for his source material, Hillcoat breaks down the barriers of the disaster film in The Road, barriers I genuinely hope stay broken.

Michael Calle is recent La Trobe Bachelor of Journalism graduate who writes about  film, music and pop culture.  His blog is called TERMINALS.