In Theaters: The Road
[Editor's Note: We featured a capsule review of The Road during our TIFF coverage. What follows is a more extensive review -- and second opinion -- from staff critic Michelle Orange.]
Offering a sort of antidote to 2012's decadently catastrophic version of the world's end, which seems to stop just short of shooting confetti out of Christ the Redeemer as he tumbles into the sea, The Road positions itself as an apocalypse for the thinking masochist. Although riveting eyeballs to the spectacle of our most sacred monuments crumbling is old and reliably lucrative cinematic hat, the apocalypse is also a concept that has moved major artists to their greatest work, the most recent examples being Margaret Atwood's sequel to Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, from which this film is adapted. Director John Hillcoat, in attempting to realize McCarthy's vision of the planet -- and the fragile concept of humanity -- in chaos, delves so deeply into his source material that he commits the one sin Roland Emmerich, with his dominatrix-like wielding of sensual pleasure and punishment, cannot be accused of: he loses sight of the audience.
In a way it's understandable: it's pretty dark out there, on the road, where Man (Viggo Mortensen, looking stringy in every possible way) and his son Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are making their way across a ravaged American shitscape. Successful chiefly as an aesthetic exercise, the post-apocalyptic world as envisioned by Hillcoat and art director Gershon Ginsburg is leeched of all color and vitality; what life remains -- the few human faces we see over the course of the two-hour film -- have also been absorbed by the soot and dust. In Mortenson and Smit-McPhee's case, this often reduces them to a pair of blue eyes, and the very rare flash of their teeth -- there's not much use for smiles in this new world of grim and perhaps senseless perseverance. Low walls of wild fire occasionally break up the asphalt skies, and although we are not told how or why the planet collapsed, it was quite pointedly an infernal affair.
The film begins in a flashback, where Man is joined by his pregnant wife (Charlize Theron), and the first signs of that enveloping hellfire are shown only in reflection, lighting up their faces in the middle of the night. Hillcoat's attempts to build an idiosyncratic, framing mystery around Man and Boy's predicament mostly backfires, and the flashbacks -- which ultimately indicate that, after giving birth and raising their son for several years in dire, post-civilized conditions, Woman decided to remove herself from the equation -- clog the film with sentiment and unresolved ideas that its stark frame was not designed to support. "I don't want to just survive," Woman says. "You sound crazy," Man replies. And indeed, the notion of womankind checking out of humanity is most provocative (I was reminded of it recently when considering the twisted nobility of endangered animals who won't mate in captivity), but Hillcoat is uninterested in exploring it as anything more than backstory.
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