A Wasteland of Opportunity
The landscape that the two main protagonists of The Road inhabit (a father and his son, named Man and Boy in the feature, played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) isn't just bleak; it's downright horrendous, with no animals, sunlight or flourishing vegetation to speak of. Bloodshed and cannibals are everyday occurrences, and the duo don't really try to survive in this new world as much as they attempt to just exist. And really, can you blame them? What else is there really to give one hope for the future aside from the "once-in-a-full-moon" appearance of a can of Coke.
I'm impressed that, aside from an ending that feels just a bit too fortunate, the darkness of this horrific world is handled consistently throughout the running time. Director John Hillcoat has a great knack for conveying the characters struggles in subtle ways, as Man attempts to protect his son from all the tragedy that has consumed the world. A great deal of the foreboding tone comes from the mystery that inhabits the world, as the exact cause of this apocalyptic wasteland is never fully explained. Fine by me; better to let the audience join Boy in his confusion over the world he lives in than have more knowledge than the protagonists they're watching.
That kind of focus centered on world building (or lack thereof) is something I wish the film had utilized more. Occasionally, things get aimless and while it's not enough to distract from the numerous positives the film conveys, it definitely neuters a few of the films poignant moments. At least none of the films tense moments are hindered, because man, do those work out spectacularly. Anything involving Man and Boy in some kind of peril is terrifically staged with just the right amount of mystery laced around every footstep, every noise, every breath to keep things constantly engaging.
Mortensen shares pretty much most of the film with McPhee, and luckily, the two mix together well, with Mortensen handling Man's morally questionable behavior in a thought-provoking manner that makes a fellow question who one is truly sympathetic for. Take a sequence towards the end where Man catches up with a man who stole him and his sons supplies. It isn't enough for him to just get his supplies back, he has to embarrass the stranger as well by making him strip down naked in the freezing cold. Just watching Mortensen spit out every word drew out complex emotions; one obviously doesn't approve of his actions, but the precarious situation may call for more drastic measures. On the other hand, the thief's sobbing and repentance makes one share in Boy's feelings and hate Mortensen. All while these complex scenarios play out, Mortensen makes sure to have just a hint of vulnerability hidden within everything he does.
This is a movie that one doesn't just watch, but envelop, as everything from the unforgettable environments to the gripping characters seeps into your mind and stays there. If it can get a little lost once or twice along the way, The Road always manages to compel you to keep watching the tragedy. After it's all done, I couldn't help but ask; was the tragedy the disaster itself or what humanity has been reduced to in the face of this apocalypse?
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