(In theaters Nov. 25th)
The Road, the new film based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, played on November 4th at a Gala as part of AFI’s Tribute to Viggo Mortensen. The film was preceded by a Q&A session with the actor who has been a star in such films as A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and Lord of the Rings.
The Road follows the journey of a man and his son as they make their way across a stark wasteland after an unnamed global apocalypse as they are faced with constant dangers and emotionally difficult decisions as they try to survive. The film is more scary, tense, and horrifying than the trailers might make it out to be. The cataclysmic earthquakes, wildfires, and extinction of all plant and wildlife on earth are merely the backdrop to a much more sinister exploration of what people are capable of doing when desperate enough.
With this film we are given the chance to observe people confronted with the decision to face a truly bleak and hopeless future and a daily existence filled with looming threats and unspeakable horrors, or to find a way to escape it by whatever means possible. Times like those test and shatter the way people view themselves. A hungry belly and no hope can change a man into something terrible. The film shows that some choose to still hold on with furious devotion and tenacity, clinging to their sense of humanity and anything to focus hope on even as those very things threaten and complicate their survival. What is interesting is that the movie goes beyond being about a fight for survival and asks what makes people choose to live.
Viggo Mortensen gives a strong performance. He commits himself both emotionally and physically, on screen you can see his emaciated spine jutting out from his back and the lean sunken lines of his face. His character is a man who is vulnerable and finds himself unsure if what he does to keep moving is motivated by fear or by real hope, questioning if he will be able to remain up to the task for much longer. Charlize Theron gives a weaker performance as his wife, appearing mostly in flashbacks which are only there to give back-story and flesh out the emotional trials Viggo Mortensen’s character must go through.
Joe Penhall, who wrote the screenplay, was faced with the difficult task of turning a Pulitzer prize book into a film. When working with something that is so carefully, thoughtfully, and perfectly crafted to fit the medium it is created for the nuances and particular language just can’t be transferred in their entirety, though the film does an honest effort to do the book justice. The only thing that can be done is to try to adapt the content and lift out the core and face of what tells the story best with the tools available, and hopefully add something that was otherwise not possible in return. There are changes however I did not agree with which I felt were weak, particularly regarding the role of the man’s wife, and alterations to a conversation with an old man. One part adds a dog which was only vaguely mentioned in the book and its presence only raises questions.
Despite this, the power and impact of the story and the implications of the ideas that propel it are what drive the heart of this film, and manage to leave you chilled and unsure whether to be cautiously hopeful or deeply uneasy. It also brings up some sobering, if interesting environmental issues and demonstrates how entwined they are with our ability to sustain civilization.
While some may take the way the film resolves as a hopeful affirmation, something in me cannot fully trust, instead taking the movie in its entirety and reading in it a lingering cautionary warning that left me unsure how long this fire inside can still can burn. It is a fire that must be maintained. It reminds us humanity can exist in even the bleakest of places, but its victory over dark times is anything but certain.