NOVEMBER 4, 2009
Let’s get this out of the way right now: The Road is not a horror movie by any means. Despite the threat of cannibals and the post-apocalyptic setting, it’s a straight up character drama, with more in common with Road To Perdition than Roadgames or Road Warrior (itself not a horror movie, but still moreso than this). I’m not sure why the film has been covered so much on the horror sites (I guess people hear keywords and assume it’s a genre film), but I hope no one is going to go into it expecting some sort of Cannibal Holocaust/I Am Legend hybrid.
Or a really great movie, for that matter. While it certainly FEELS like a great film, it never actually IS one; it’s a generic journey film in Oscar bait clothing. Apart from a few technical nominations (and Warren Ellis & Nick Cave’s beautiful score), I can’t really see Oscar giving it any attention, despite the cast (Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall are probably expecting supporting noms) and the best efforts of the Weinsteins, who delayed the film a year in hopes that it would be playing to a less crowded awards field.
But it just never quite gets to the point of greatness. A big part of that is the complete lack of balls. A scene where a baby is eaten was cut, reducing the presumed threat of cannibalism to nothing. If we are really supposed to believe that their situation is so desperate (to the point where Viggo Mortensen shows his 8 year old son how to shoot himself in the head if it ever becomes necessary), then the filmmakers need to show us how grim things really are. Instead, I think the only reason the film even has an R rating is due to a shot of Viggo’s balls (dude strips down TWICE in the film), because the very few (and brief) encounters with alleged cannibals are all played out in the same way - Viggo and the kid see them, hide under some brush, wait for the right moment, and run without any incident. They kill one early one (in self-defense), but the rest of the group apparently can’t be bothered to give them any real chase, and after the film’s halfway point, the “cannibals” are never seen or even really mentioned again.
Every now and then Viggo and the kid stumble upon a cameo, er, character, but these scenes also sort of miss their mark. It’s always a big distraction for me to have big names suddenly pop up in the narrative of a serious film. It worked for Cold Mountain, because that film had some semblance of levity in it and was largely inspired by "The Odyssey" anyway (which kept me from ever buying into it as a real story), but here I’m supposed to be completely caught up in this depressing world and feeling their desperation. Instead, I’m like “Hey, what the hell is Guy Pearce doing in this all of a sudden?”
But again, on the technical side of things, the film is damn near flawless. The constant gray/gloomy visuals (and again, Ellis/Cave’s score) sell the terrible state of the world better than anything the characters do, and kudos to director John Hillcoat (incidentally an Australian, something I didn't realize when I made my "Road" examples) for managing to constantly make a world made up entirely of lots of burned out trees and husks of former buildings to remain visually interesting for two hours. I was highly impressed with how they sold the end of the world as well - the budget on this was not huge, but it all must have gone to making sure the audience really bought that the entire world had been consumed by fires and earthquakes.
And the acting is fine all around, particularly Theron (once again in “letting herself look like shit” mode, though the film offers us one beauty shot) as a woman who has completely lost what little maternal instincts she ever may have had as a result of the apocalypse. There is a bit of a puzzling choice on the screenwriter’s part (likely stemming from Cormac McCarthy’s original novel - which I have not read) to not stretch out her story until the end of the film; it might have been slightly more compelling if Mortensen was hoping to find her alive, only to find her dead (or cannibalistic!) near the end of the film, which would be a conventional but better than nothing way of having him finally lose the “fire in his heart”, instead of it just occurring out of nowhere. Plus, given Theron’s importance as an actress, you would think they’d like to keep her in the movie more to boot. This also results in the flashback motif being abandoned halfway through, which is also a bit awkward (imagine if halfway through a traditional Hurley-centric episode of Lost, they just focused entirely on what Sawyer was up to on the island for the rest of the episode).
In the end, I am willing to bet that the film’s primary fault was sticking too closely to the source material. Everything here might work on paper, when you can also get into the characters’ heads a bit (my good friend Simon Barrett helped clarify a seemingly nonsensical plot device by explaining the character’s mental state in the book during this particular sequence, something the film never quite conveyed), but as a two hour film it lacks drive and suspense; you could chop a half hour out of any point in the middle without it making much of a difference, if any. Hillcoat should have either embraced the story’s darker aspects, or simply used it as a starting point for a more conventional road thriller. Instead he tried to find a good balance of both, and came up short.
What say you?