December 3, 2009

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The Road (R)
It’s many years after the end of the world as we know it and Viggo Mortensen does not feel fine in The Road, a bleak little road movie for your holiday viewing.

Bleak, bare, dim, dark, gray, grungy, grimy — this is how life, post-apocalypse, looks. The apocalypse itself we don’t see — only the orange glow of some kind of fire that it caused and the dead ash-covered landscape it left behind. A man (Mortensen) sees the end of the world and tries to keep himself and his wife (Charlize Theron) safe and healthy. She’s pregnant and gives birth in their house. Some years later, their son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has no memory of the world before the way it is now, and the man decide to head for the coast. The mother is gone. They have a gun with two bullets (one for each of them if needed). They must scrounge for food along the road and struggle not to become food — the animals are also gone, so if you don’t have any canned pineapples or salvaged soda, the only food is other people.

The man is absolutely relentless and unforgiving. He sees the boy’s survival as his only purpose. But the boy is a boy — desperate for other children and, despite everything, willing to give people the benefit of the doubt (maybe everyone left in the world isn’t a bad guy, he thinks; we’re one of the good guys, right?, he keeps asking his father).

The Road is spare, as pared down as the bluntest of Hemingway sentences. And this was definitely the way to go with this kind of story — grandiose and elaborate would have dulled the awfulness of the world created here, which is the thing that sucks you in and keeps you interested. We, like the boy, see horrible things everywhere but keep looking to find glimmers of hope — some suggestion that the world, if not these specific characters, would survive.

We in the audience are trapped into this story by its small cast — Mortensen, Smit-McPhee, Theron in short flashbacks, Robert Duvall in a short but stunning cameo. Everyone else is a monster — like the cannibals that hunt on the roads — or a ghost, like the boy that our Boy thinks he sees peeking from around a building. Considering the bigness of the concept, the smallness of what the story and the actors do with it is impressive. We want to know what happened to the world but the story keeps us focused on these moments with the man and the boy — and the tension between these things makes for an engrossing film. B

Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and languages (and, I’m guessing, the people-eating). Directed by John Hillcoat and written by Joe Penhall (from the novel by Cormac McCarthy), The Road is an hour and 53 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Dimension.