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The Road

"The Road"; a film review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

"I think it's October."

The man who utters this line at the beginning of "The Road" is rational. He's not on any kind of drug---prescription or street; just trying to establish where he thinks the season has progressed even though there's little around him to indicate whether it's fall or early winter. For, in the not too distance past, the world has been rendered almost unlivable for everyone. It's hard to know what month it is and no one has any idea or seems to care what year.

The man, his wife and their son also aren't sure what caused the calamity, but the now fragile family has reason to believe it was due to an international conflict among nations with powerful weapons. It may be that the man can't discern the season because of what looks to be a constant nuclear winter.

Welcome to "Fail-Safe" City or "Children of Men" Manor or "On the Beach" Country. Unfortunately, this country---not for any man, young or old---is a nightmare the acclaimed author, Cormac McCarthy ("No Country for Old Men") wants to draw from the human subconscious onto a cognitive level. All you need to read his same-titled novel are the guts to do it. But isn't that what any writer worth his or her salt is supposed to do on the page?


"The Road" was directed by Australian, John Hillcoat ("The Proposition"). The cast includes Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pierce, Molly Parker, Garret Dillahunt and Michael K. Williams. Joe Penhall's screen adaptation tracks true to the stark, spare fundamental story but doesn't have the emotional punch of McCarthy's novel that won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

A father (Mortensen) and his son (Smit-McPhee), who's about 8 or so, trek across a devastated landscape to somewhere more southerly and near the edge of an ocean. Where they are now, the coming winter will likely be too much for them this year. As they move on, the two must scrounge for nourishment and shelter, avoid marauding bands of thugs---some given to cannibalism---and try not to think about their longed-for past while continually telling themselves not to give up and commit suicide. Their only weapon is a revolver loaded with two rounds of ammunition.

As the man and boy slog through what's left of the world, over what seem to be several months time, they come upon many people who've already lost the "fire" within and made that final choice. The remnants of other beings also are strewn along the way: victims of the disaster or sustenance for less human souls who prey in a place where the sun always hides behind an ashen sky. Four-legged animals, fish, fowl and insects are no more.

Occasionally, the narrative flashes back to when the wife/mother (Theron) is with them, usually in dreams of the father. McCarthy's book gives less space for the wife and, for the most part, makes his story (as he's wont to do) about male relationships or the plight of man, alone. The sedulous Ms. Theron, of course, is an excellent choice for the role, although there's little face time for her.

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Viggo Mortensen Charlize Theron

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Viggo Mortensen

Charlize Theron

Robert Duvall gets even less screen time in "The Road." He plays a grimy, ninety-year-old man wandering alone as the father and son overtake him on their journey. Duvall waxes heavily by the camp fire the night they're together, skirting his emotions about his lost son and taking questions from the young boy (beside him now) that weigh on fundamental values the author believes, it seems, are worthy of consideration, especially for the predicament these characters find themselves in the desperate dark.

Besides suggesting a rationale why peaceniks march, "The Road" shows a series of close scrapes and altercations with other road survivors. There are the soft-focused memories, too, as well as harsher moments in the family's past. The novel lingers with each on-the-road situation more than the movie, although most remain in the script. Mercifully, grisly circumstances or the consequences of horrific acts by roving gangs are edited to only a few frames of the film. Seeing them gave me what might be called a "Deliverance" or "James Dickey Moment," felt mostly along the spine.

For a while, the father and son find respite in an abandoned fallout shelter behind an empty, rural home. No one has discovered the underground sanctuary and its store of supplies since whatever happened, happened. They catch their breath in it for a few days until noises outside the shelter cause the pair to move on for sake of safety. Whatever made the noises doesn't seem sufficient to motivate their moving on, but "The Road" is a road movie.

My experience with the craft of Cormac McCarthy has taught me to not necessarily expect much detail or resolution to some threads in his stories. McCarthy has "homework" for you when reading him, and "No Country for Old Men" is a good example. That goes for the novel as well as the Oscar-winning film of 2008.

It wasn't till I read "No Country" after seeing the film that I fully understood what Joel and Ethan Coen were up to: making their subtle movie as true as they could to how McCarthy put it on the page. The book sharpened my appreciation for the motion picture.

That's not so much the case with "The Road," which is, although, as spare and unsentimental. It's not specific about who's who, where's where or why whatever happened occurred when. Besides the struggle to stay alive, the narrative keeps asking fundamental questions about how a person lives a life...and in the living, whether it's done as a good guy or a bad guy...McCarthy and his homework.

The son is inclined to grace. The father is loving and protective but pragmatic about getting on with survival and even, maybe, a Plan B which brings the dad to contemplate killing his son to keep him from being ravaged and massacred by rapacious assailants...or even coaching the boy how to commit suicide, should the father die, leaving him alone in the apocalypse.

"The Road" dares to draw an audience onto the raw, existential nerve of that dilemma; how it squares with the matter of human survival and one's response to another being---whether it comes from nurturing love, destructive hate or selfish need. Distances between each of these choices, on this road taken, are much shorter than one might think.

As with the novel---the price of admission notwithstanding---all it takes to see the film is the courage to watch it. That might include having to buckle the theater seat belt more tightly and bringing something along other than popcorn to bite down on.

"The Road" official site. Opens wide Wednesday 11/25.

Check Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for theaters and times.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net,
Facebook.com/justin.playfair and Twitter.com/orwellingly.

Copyright © 2009, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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