The Road

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

>The Road didn’t seem to make any impact when it was released in theatres. It was given a very small release and then a few weeks later it was gone. I suppose the studio was hoping that it would generate some Oscar buzz and that it would slowly gain wider distribution. Unfortunately, though, it was never really a contender for the Academy Awards and it quickly disappeared off the radar.

I can understand why this happened, but it’s still a shame. The Road lacks the poetry and emotional power of the novel and it’s certainly not a crowd pleaser, but it’s still a worthy film. And as far as the Academy Awards go, it’s leagues ahead of stuff like Avatar and Up in the Air.

Although my problems with the film are few, I do think that the movie is too keen to give away key elements of the story. In the novel there’s a slow build up to the horrors. McCarthy is very methodical and takes his time. The film, though, perhaps sensing that film audiences are impatient Neanderthals, almost immediately informs you that there are cannibals in this post apocalyptic world. And then to make it explicit, within the first fifteen minutes there’s a scene where a father and son encounter one of the ‘bad guys’. The man is like something out of Deliverance and tries to tell the father that he can help him and his son out. The father’s not having any of it and points a gun at him. The father then asks what the man is eating. ‘Anything we can find,’ answers the man, who then looks at the boy and almost licks his lips. The scene is well done but it’s too early in the film. We’re only just getting to know the characters and so the peril isn’t as keenly felt. Had they placed it later on, the stakes would have been higher and it would have had more of an impact. But the filmmakers are overly eager to explain what is exactly going on in this world and as a consequence they ruin the surprise element.

One of the most shocking things in the book is not the cannibalism itself but the form that the cannibalism has taken. There’s a sequence where the father and son break into a house and then discover people in the basement – people who are being harvested for food. When I read the scene, it took me aback. In the film, though, because the cannibalism is addressed so quickly and clearly, it doesn’t have the same power.

But again the scene is well filmed. The basement dwellers look almost zombie-like but they still have the humanity to ask for help. And this captures one of the story’s moral dilemmas. The characters say that they’re ‘carrying the fire’ and they’re adamant that they’re good guys in a world gone crazy, but how can you truly be a good guy when you condemn others to death? This is what happens in The Road. The father and son, knowing that there’s nothing they can do, lock the basement and run off before they too are killed. Sometimes, in order to save yourself, you have to pass judgement on others. It’s not something that’s easy to live with, but what would be the point of killing yourself in a futile attempt to save others?

Another example of the difficult decisions that have to be made in a world this tough comes in the scene where the father and son have all of their possessions stolen by another survivor. They eventually catch up to the man and the father makes the man give all the stuff back. But on top of this, he makes the man strip naked, almost certainly condemning him to death. It’s a harsh, almost Old Testament style punishment, but you can see why the father does it. In this world, your supplies are the difference between life and death. So when someone steals your possessions you have to take appropriate measures. However, the father probably goes too far – the other man is also fighting and clawing to survive in this world. So while the father is judge, jury and executioner, his son is his conscience – the boy convinces his father to go back and return the man’s clothes. It’s this compassion, this concern for others that lets you know that he’s the one truly carrying the fire – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is what makes you human and it’s what makes us unique amongst the species.

The fire that the characters are carrying is also illustrated in a scene where the father and son find a bunker full of supplies. They gorge themselves on food, they groom themselves for the first time in god knows how long and they have fun. This is what life is supposed to be like. We should have evolved past the life and death dilemmas we used to face – we should be able to sit back and enjoy ourselves, free from the fear of impending oblivion. But instead the threat is still there. We still have to scavenge to survive. Life at the moment might not be like it is in The Road, but with the economic crisis that has hit us we’re still struggling to keep our heads above water.

Indeed, if you so wished, you could look at the story of The Road as a metaphor for life in America today. So many people walk a tightrope between survival and disaster that it’s hardly surprising that people will trample over each other in order to get what they need – in The Road it’s literally a dog eat dog world. With help so sorely lacking from external sources such as the government, people have to rely on charity, family and random generosity. The boy here is one of those people that will do anything to help others – when he and his father encounter an old man, he wants to hold his hand and feed him. Maybe America can learn from this boy. People shouldn’t be cut adrift and left to fend for themselves. We should all look out for each other.

The main fear for the boy in this film is that his father will die. His father is the one person who is looking out for him and who he can rely on. And indeed, at the end, his nightmare comes true – the father passes away. Thus he is cast into a harsh, uncaring world. It’s only by chance that some ‘good guys’ come along to help the boy out.

The main disappointment of the film is that the father’s death lacks the emotional punch of the novel. In the book, the death scene is shattering. Here it falls slightly flat. It’s like the actors and the director couldn’t quite get in the groove the day they were filming it.

On the flip side, the main success of the movie is its magnificent score. Composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, it’s further proof that they’re making some of the best film scores today. It doesn’t quite reach the dizzying heights of their work on The Assassination of Jesse James, but it comes mighty close. If only the movie’s final scene could capture the same emotion.

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