J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

It was a most unlikely Oprah book. An eventual winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road surely had the literary credentials, but lacked the predictable victimization themes favored by the talk show host. Even more improbably, McCarthy’s novel used elements of science fiction, namely the post-apocalyptic setting, to tell its stark tale. If not typical Oprah Book Club fare, there is definitely a tradition of near-future wasteland genre epics that now continues with John Hillcoat’s big-screen adaption of The Road (trailer here), which finally opens in New York tomorrow.

While there was reportedly the proverbial flash of light, the world essentially ended with a whimper, not a bang. Nobody really knows what happens, and it hardly matters now. The Sun has been obscured by a permanent grey haze, killing most vegetation. Infrastructure has been decimated and food is increasingly scarce. Many survivors have resorted to cannibalism to survive. In this unforgiving environment, an unnamed man and his young son are traveling to the coast, in search of a better life.

Not willing to endure mere survival, the boy’s mother surrendered to the winter oblivion, leaving them behind. Alone in the world, the man will protect the boy at all costs, but he is clearly not well. They have precious little food remaining, no medicine, and only two bullets left, either for self-defense or for suicide. Still, the man tries to nourish hope in the boy, despite the constant danger represented by white trash cannibal gangs roving the decimated landscape.

Viggo Mortensen looks convincingly scrawny and sickly as the nameless protagonist. He also has some heartrending scenes with Charlize Theron, appearing in flashbacks as his late wife. Unfortunately, though an apocalypse could certainly be expected to stunt most children’s social development, The Road’s Boy shows zero personality throughout the film. Also, while the great American actor Robert Duvall is quite good as an old man they meet on the road, he is essentially wasted in what amounts to a brief cameo performance.

Unquestionably, the most compelling aspect of The Road is its oppressively grim post-apocalyptic milieu. Hillcoat and production designer Chris Kennedy create a fully realized world where the Sun does not shine, the birds never sing, and man is desperately inhumane to his fellow man. Wisely, screenwriter Joe Penhall keeps the cause of the global catastrophe obscure, infusing the film with an unsettling ambiguity that never taxes the audience’s suspension of disbelief with dubious junk science or politically loaded premises (like global warming, nuclear winter, etc).

The Road’s bleak vision of the Earth’s near-future death rattle is undeniably powerful, lingering in the conscious well after viewing. However, the film’s on-screen action is pretty standard stuff. Ultimately, The Road offers a decent variation on the end-of-the-world morality play, but it not a dramatic triumph destined for Oscar glory. It opens tomorrow (11/25) at the Landmark Sunshine.

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