Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

Not Your Father's Apocalypse
(The Road, 12/21/09)
By Nicholas Nicastro

Is it time for the world to end—again?
      John Hillcoat's The Road has a lot of company in envisioning the end of days. On the other side of the multiplex wall, there's the Mayan-inspired apocalypse of 2012 (mark your calendars, folks); the previews before The Road promise no less than two world-ending visions, The Book of Eli and The Crazies, to add to the list of Terminators and Matrices and zombie epidemics and planet-killing asteroids that already seem to have destroyed us many times over. With all these cataclysms, it's not too early to say that end of the world have become not just routine, but boring. Perhaps sociologists of the future will be able to explain why, in the midst of stupefying material abundance, we're so fascinated by our species' demise. For now, if you're going to show me the death of all I know and love, you better show me something new.
      The Road at least has its pedigree as a Cormac McCarthy novel, which had the distinction of being both a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and a book many people actually did read. The story is simple: after a thermonuclear holocaust leaves the world a scorched, lifeless desert, a man (Viggo Mortenson) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wander the landscape, scavenging from the entrails of civilization. They have a vague feeling that going south, toward the sun, is better. But mostly the book is a kind of Outward Bound course on survival in a dead world. The fundamental question is, after the end of everything, what's next?
      One gets the feeling this movie was sold to somebody as "The Road Warrior meets Deliverance," but to Hillcoat's credit he stays more or less faithful to McCarthy's low-key vision. Hillcoat, whose last effort was the oddball Aussie western The Proposition, wisely withholds CGI spectacle in favor of suggestive images, such as a pillaged shopping mall here, a derelict viaduct there. After starvation, the protagonists' worst fear is becoming a meal for the legions of cannibalistic rednecks who swarm the landscape. In McCarthy's hands, this aspect of the book was fairly creepy, but at the movies such cleaver-wielding maniacs aren't exactly fresh material. In this sense, The Road was probably a story best left to our nightmares.
      What makes Hillcoat's version worthwhile is a poignant, utterly committed performance by Viggo Mortenson. Beyond some brief flashbacks from his prelapsarian family life, neither the book nor the movie offer much background for his character, who may be a doctor but is certainly a resourceful and loving father. His scenes with young Smit-McPhee (who bears an uncanny resemblance here to his onscreen mother, Charlize Theron) have a genuine tenderness rarely seen in father-son relationships onscreen. (Viewers with small children should feel free to add half a star.)
      One can still quibble about elements of the story carried over from McCarthy. The notion that any human conflict can result in the deaths of every bird and rodent on earth, or kill every tree, places no faith in nature's power to overcome man-made foolishness. Though McCarthy is best known for his poetical evocations of the western landscape, The Road proves that he's really just a humanist, with the affairs of people central to his universe. What's scarier than cannibalistic rednecks? A universe that will barely notice when we're gone.

©2009 Nicholas Nicastro

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