Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's The End of The World As We Know It

Over the holiday weekend we donned space suits and headed to the cinema.

The Road (2009)

A man and a boy walk the wasteland that is their post-apocalyptic world, seeking a better place.

I just started reading Cormac McCarthy’s novel upon which this John Hillcoat-directed film is based, so I’m not yet in a position to compare the two. However I will say this: there is a truly bleak feeling in McCarthy’s prose that the movie accurately touches on at the beginning, but later seems to give up.

The movie, as in the book, does not specify WHAT happened to turn the earth into a living hell (a meteor, perhaps. Bruce Willis where were you?). The air is always cloudy and gray, ashes fall from the sky constantly. There are often earthquakes, and heavy rain. There is no sunlight, so there are no green growing things. And if there are no green fields there are no animals. So what do you eat?

If you are the Man and the Boy, you eat grasshoppers that have withered and dried up, and any precious canned goods you can get your hands on. And you stay away from the roving gangs of men that have given up on humanity and turned to cannibalism.

When the Man and the Boy were alone is when the movie worked best for me. Similar to Cast Away, when Tom Hanks had to learn to survive alone on the island, it was interesting to see civilized people reduced to being something else. At one point they are huddled under and overpass, boiling water in a hub cap before pouring it into a cut up plastic bottle with some make shift filters stuffed in it to catch impurities. But they soon run into the cannibals (more than once) and have to flee for their lives, and in doing so the film seemed to move from something special and unique to something I’ve seen before with the chase and evade stuff. For a film about a man and a boy walking alone in the wasteland, they seemed to run into a lot of people.

Viggo Mortensen does a heck of a job as the Man to the Boy, his son played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. Mortensen with his scruffy beard, shoulder length greasy hair and stained and torn clothes LOOKS like someone who is barely surviving an apocalypse. The pained expression on his face tells us more in a few glimpses than other actors could in a half hour monologue.

I also liked Smit-McPhee who starts out innocent but learns some hard lessons along the way. Some critics have called him “whiney” (I didn’t see him that way) but if you’re a ten year old boy walking – always walking – in a wasteland, wouldn’t you “whine” about some things once in a while?

The production design on this movie is first rate - for a film only budgeted at $20 million it is even outstanding. There is some CGI matte work and miniatures, but a great deal of the production was shot on actual decayed, decrepit locations in Pennsylvania, such as the Abandoned Turnpike Tunnels and other derelict projects.

The problem with The Road is that it appears to be about nothing (when SNL does their parody, the Man should be Jerry Seinfeld, “What’s up with these cannibals? They’re always hungry!”). The man and boy face incredible hardships and he tries to instill in him a sense of decency by telling him, “We are the good guys” and that they are “carrying the fire (in our hearts).”

But to what end? There appears to be no real hope in this world that things will ever get better. The sun cannot pierce the thick cloud of ash that covers the sky; every green thing – plants, grass, trees – is dead. All the animals have died off. There aren’t enough canned goods to keep them alive indefinitely. This literally is Hell. The earth will eventually heal, but that may take hundreds, even thousands of years. But long before that every last human will die off too. Under these conditions they have to. So why must the Man and Boy walk to the coast. What really is there for them? The Man is also very, very sick. When he dies the Boy will be on his own. What then?

The book is a very poetic read, and I suspect the author’s intent may have been lost in translating it to the screen. What is it all about? What did it all mean? Maybe at the end of the world we’ll never truly know.

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