My interest in all things post apocalyptic will most likely become apparent during the course of this blog. Considering the ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy is pretty much one of the quintessential post-apocalyptic novels, it’s ridiculous that it has taken me this long to watch the movie adaptation. But it’s a harrowing read – beautifully written, yes. But still harrowing. And I expected (and hoped for) nothing less from the film.
This is post-apocalyptic fiction stripped down to the bare bones; stripped of all unnecessary plotting and characters. There is no hint of what has come before and no indication that the future might hold hope. A man and his young son struggle across the dying American landscape, heading to the coast in the vague hope that life might be better there.
The film depends entirely on the central relationship between the man and the boy (no names are given – there really is no superfluous information in this story). Luckily both Vigo Mortisen and Kodi Smit-McPhee turn in excellent performances.
Vigo looks truly haggard and manages to capture the subtle balance of tragic acceptance and the relentless strive for survival. His character often acts in seemingly irrational ways, yet he always remains sympathetic. When a man tries to steal his possessions, his response is to force the man to strip naked, take his pitiful clothes and leave him to perish. Cold, illogical actions, yet played with such tired hopelessness, that you can’t help but think perhaps you might have done the same.
The boy was always going to be a hard role to fill. Child actors capable of giving a natural and unaffected performance are hard to find, and one capable of giving a believable response to the sort of situations that these characters find themselves in (seeing the starving and desperate people in the basement of the cannibals, for example) even harder. It should be traumatic to see someone so young have to deal with such brutal circumstances, and Smit-McPhee is very convincing.
The landscape that the man and the boy journey through is equally convincing. Wide shots are rare – the film tends not to throw spectacle in it’s audiences faces, yet the few landscapes and establishing shots we do see are fantastic. The colours of the film are muted and washed out (though I have to say I thought it would be darker – I recall the book implying a gradual and scary loss of light as the sun is increasingly blocked out).
Fans of the book might have been concerned that the film would shy away from the darker aspects of the film. Such concerns were unfounded. Every aspect of the book remains in tact, including plenty of cannibals. It’s rare to find a film that is this bleak and hopeless – there is a glimmer of hope at the end, but it’s not much.
The majority of post-apocalyptic fiction supposes that all is not lost, that society has a chance of being rebuilt. What makes The Road stand out is the sense that we are witnessing the end of all things. Yet people endure and try to survive – even in the face of such hopelessness.