The beginning is the end. With a soulful, almost sleepy, melody the films awakes to The Man and his Wife in their house. She is pregnant as is the mood, with a tangible anxiety. Then outside we hear the plumes of panic in the air, people screaming, unearthly lights and the Earth’s deep, portentous rumble. As in the novel we are never told what happened, director John Hillcoat keeps the fire behind closed curtains or beyond the scant protection of a tent’s cover; the world ends through a glass, darkly. But the apocalyptic events seen are a dream, and we wake with Virgo Mortensen’s character to a barren, derelict world; the forests are gone, the ground is scorched and the death rattle of the world continues far off. The world is dying, slowly.
Javier Aguirresarobe’s melancholic cinematography paints a exhausted world with grace and sadness. Witness The Man and The Boy pushing their belongings in a shopping trolley in the darkest silhouette against the horizon consumed by a furious fire or the ashen, empty streets under blackened skies littered with skeletons and the detritus of the human world in savage evacuation. One scene in particular is beautiful and a poignant reminder of what has become of us – walking through a small town’s main street The Man and The Boy walk under the shadows of dozens of telegraph poles listing and slanted like broken masts of shipwrecked ships in a storm ravaged sea. The poetry of the images imbue each step on the road with such power it becomes hard to breathe. The sudden rush of colour of the flashbacks are impactful to the point of physical recoiling, and in this new world even the rainbow cast by a discovered waterfall is muted and temporary.
The music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, uniting again with the John Hillcoat after their work on The Proposition, is mournful and in fractured harmony with the vacant world. The sonic landscape is beautifully scored with a haunting touch which whispers along with each scene like a chorus of ghosts and contributes everything it should. Bereft of its images the score draws the ear and conjures up a succession of slow moving emotions: hope and despair, lightness and the blackest night; it is the perfect accompaniment to Hillcoat’s bleak cynicism.
While the score is an essential part of the world it is in the deep silences when the film’s power becomes apparent. Each silence brings the terrifying potential of the next threat, be it the footsteps of another interloper in this dead world (the danger of cannibalism is the greater fear), or the groaning of the Earth as it gives up its forests one tree at a time. The world is complete, and it is jarring. I thought of the computer generated destruction of Roland Emmerich’s disaster films, shown with such overblown, voyeuristic detail in the trailer for 2012 and realised that there is nothing more terrifying than hearing the hollow silence after the end.
Hillcoat is a master of presenting a wide open landscape and finding the detail that colours our perception of the whole. The realistic tone of this world turned on its head is startling, and while the events and characters encountered on the road are routine their impact on the central figures is conveyed powerfully. Robert Duvall’s old man is a heart breaking study of acceptance and loss in the face of utter defeat, as is the brutal accosting of The Boy by a cannibal and its equally brutal denouement. The wedding ring held aloft on the vast, vacant elevated freeways is a perfect example of the smallest object having the greatest significance in this world. His direction is solid and elicits a overwhelming emotion connection to the events on this futile journey.
The true heart of this film is the gentle relationship between The Man and The Boy, played with sublime grace by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee. The dynamic of the piece necessitates the central characters and the actors who play them must be believable as they carry so much of our engagement on their shoulders. Viggo Mortensen has praised the performance and humanity of Smit-McPhee, who was able to bring a child’s natural enthusiasm and curiosity to this other Earth, the only world he knows; it is an integral part of the film’s effectiveness and works on every level and at every moment. You believe each heart breaking interaction as The Man prepares his son for a time when he won’t be there to protect him, and Mortensen evokes an incredible depth to his performance, there is a true sadness in his eyes as as he shepherds The Boy through the badlands of the world his depleted energy is a cruel testament to the incompatibility of the bond of love in this crestfallen world. One brief surprisingly uplifting moment occurs when The Man upends an old vending machine to find a dusty can of Coke its in bowels, and The Boy’s surprise at its alien taste and, once his begrudgingly accepts a taste, there is the briefest moment when The Man looks off into an imagined distance, recalling a lost time. It rips through what is left of your heart.
Each performance is perfect, and the moral questions it raises of how to survive and at the same time maintain the human part of you is oppressive and magnetic. The film contains moments of panic, hope, courage and endurance played out in a world that is a shadow of the world we enjoy. It is a harrowing and painful journey, one that we will all walk in our lives and the questions which face The Man and his Boy will be asked of us too. To create a film so intimate and encompassing is a true achievement; a masterpiece of melancholia this substantial and stirring is worth your time.
This film, like all films, is a love story. Witness The Man taking up a blanket which has lain over the skeleton of its former owner and wrapping it around The Boy in a moment of functional, parental love and this is merely one moment in a multitude that will touch your heart.
The Road is a triumphant adaptation of a powerful work. It is dark and poetic, beautifully bleak and desolate and will stay with you forever.
The Road opens in UK cinemas on the 8th of January 2010. Don’t be afraid. Take the first step and the film will do the rest.