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DRE #444020

Film Review

The Road

"Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. From what I've tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire." Still timely, these first two lines of Frost's thoughts on the apocalypse, which is the setting of a story about the love between father and son. John Hillcoat, an Australian director (The Proposition), has put Cormac McCarthy's dark novel, The Road, on screen. Neither the novel nor the film ever identify what caused mass destruction and the death of nearly every living thing, but a narrator says that "clocks stopped at 1:17." "A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions." The film opens with a father and son, never named, at the mouth of a cave next to a waterfall. They are filthy, and continue walking through a desolate landscape of burned and smashed trees with ash everywhere. There is no food and their journey is one of constantly searching for something to eat, with near constant fear and tension, while hiding from roving bands of brutish men who are cannibals. Fires are everywhere, cities are ruined, and roads filled with burned cars and tilted electric poles. They pass only ruined houses and towns. There is no sun, skies are dark, often with rain and lightning, the landscape reminiscent of a Hieronymus Bosch vision of hell. In one scene, they are camped in a forest when dead trees begin to fall around them. It is truly frightening in a way not often seen in films. Other scenes of them silhouetted on the road owe much to early Bergman films, and have a terrible beauty.

The father and son are attempting to reach the coast from somewhere inland, but no reason is given for this particular route, other than to stay alive. It is a nightmarish road trip, on foot, dragging a pushcart, with episodes of terror as they discover what some men have become. Often they are the hunted, by these men. The father is determined to protect his son, to "keep carrying the fire". The son isn't sure what this means, but tries to understand the difference between "the good guys and the bad guys". He keeps asking his father if they are the good guys. At times the father dreams of his previous life, courting his wife, their lovemaking, and eventually a baby, the son. These scenes are in color, in contrast to the grey, washed out tones of the world now, but shown only in fragments, that seem to become more and more difficult for the father to remember. They meet another wanderer, an old man, played by Robert Duvall, whose performance is unforgettable. An encounter, with a black man, is particularly sad. They press on, and eventually reach the seashore. The story doesn't end here but I don't want to reveal more except that love endures.

Hillcoat has produced a powerful and amazing film, grim, bleak, yet riveting. The story is presented in an understated way, not at all like the other Hollywood apocalypse films. All the performances are outstanding, especially Viggo Mortensen, playing the father, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, playing the son. Mortensen should win an Oscar for this performance. The cinematography is very accomplished, beautiful in a grim way, with location shooting in Pennsylvania, Oregon, Louisiana, and at Mt St Helens. The latter, a perfect backdrop for much of this film. Many of the images are haunting and unforgettable. A scene in a ruined church, with its cross shaped central window missing, is particularly memorable. The music is beautiful, appropriately elegiac, some Bach and some written for the film. The Road is a tremendous film, but the story and setting so bleak that many will avoid it. It is definitely worth seeing, to watch Mortensen carry the fire. Just opened at the Embarcadero, and should be seen on the big screen.

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