It’s usually an indicator of trouble when a distributor changes a movie’s release date once, let alone multiple times. The Weinstein Company initially announced that “The Road” would be released on November 14, 2008; then moved it to December 2008; then to early 2009; then to October 16, 2009; and finally (?) to November 25, 2009, the day before Thanksgiving. The explanations have varied: the star told a journalist that he was under the impression that CGI and scoring required more time; industry analysts speculated that the studio was in such dire financial shape that it couldn’t fund a proper sendoff and awards campaign; and others concluded that it must just be a disappointment that the Weinsteins hoped to quietly bury altogether. Yet again, the Weinsteins have proven them all wrong: “The Road” is, in fact, one of the very best films of the year and deserves a spot on any list of the greatest dystopian, post-apocalyptic films of all-time.
“The Road” was adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name — the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a the selection of “Oprah’s Book Club” — by Joe Penhall (a playwright-turned-screenwriter) and directed by John Hillcoat (“The Proposition”). It is highlighted by a tour-de-force performance by Viggo Mortensen — the most underappreciated actor of his generation, in my opinion. And it features one of the better child turns in recent memory by pre-teen Kodi Smit-McPhee; brief but memorable appearances by Oscar winners Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall; and extraordinary visuals courtesy of production designer Chris Kennedy and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who have managed the rare feat of making a fake world look convincingly, frighteningly real.
The film tells a heartbreaking story. For reasons that are never directly addressed, the planet has begun to destroy itself, breeding chaos and savagery of the worst kind among its dwindling population. We watch this through the eyes of a nameless father and son — The Man (Mortensen), who is of the last generation to know what the world was like before all hell broke loose, and The Boy (Smit-McPhee), who is of the first generation not to — as they struggle not only to survive amidst these conditions, but to also maintain a sense of decency in the process.
In terms of awards, the key thing to understand is that this is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea — indeed, it presents such a vividly bleak vision, at times, that it makes “No Country for Old Men” look like “The Sound of Music” (1965). Consequently, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see audiences and some awards voters shy away from it now, only to rediscover it years down the road (if you will) and turn it into a cult classic like some of its finest progenitors, “Blade Runner” (1982), “Brazil” (1985), and most recently “Children of Men” (2006). In a year with ten nominees, it’s conceivable that it could get a best picture nomination, but I think the much more achievable goal is to try to get a second best actor nod for Mortensen, who was previously recognized for “Eastern Promises” (2007) and is certainly worthy here. (The Weinstein Company appears to be hedging its bets on Mortensen, though, having picked up the rights to another film with best actor possibilities — “A Single Man,” starring Colin Firth — at the Toronto Film Festival.)
Some additional thoughts/observations/questions (includes some spoilers):
- In the film’s production notes, Mortensen offers high-praise for Smit-McPhee: “I can honestly say that in all the movies I’ve been a part of, all the scenes, all the rehearsals with actors from all over the world — I’ve been lucky, I’ve been able to work with some very good performers — I have never had a better acting partner, ever. That’s from the oldest most experienced decorated performers to newer, younger, raw talent. I have never worked with someone who is so consistently in the moment, so consistently there with you. His performance will make this one of those movies that you watch years from now. I really think that.”
- Neither The Man nor The Boy are ever referred to by their names; in fact, The Old Man is the only character in the film whose name is mentioned — Eli. I asked Mortensen about this and he says he thinks it might have something to do with the prophet Elijah.
- Something else that’s conspicuously absent from the script: the phrase “I love you.” It’s clear that The Man felt love for his Wife, and that The Man and The Boy felt love for each other, so why was this never explicitly stated? Is it because “love” as we know it could not survive amidst such hopeless conditions, or because love — as Don Draper jarringly puts in the pilot episode of “Mad Men” — never really existed at all and is merely a comforting notion “invented by guys like me to sell nylons”?
- Duvall is 78-years-old and looks pretty good, but you wouldn’t know it from his his brief/impressive cameo in this film and his starring role “Get Low,” which also played at Toronto: he plays an elderly bearded gent in both and is almost unrecognizable!
- The scenes in which Mortensen provides voiceover narration are terrific. In fact, the juxtaposition of his his melodic, soothing, calm voice with the catastrophic visuals reminded me of Brando’s scenes in “Apocalypse Now” (1979) — in both cases, you feel more than you listen.
- Even more than the scenes featuring fires and earthquakes, the one featuring the trees crashing down around The Man and The Boy was very impressively executed and genuinely scary. (So, too, was the rebellion of the cannibal victims.)
- The scene in which The Man discovers a can of Coca-Cola and shares it with The Boy struck me as a little bizarre — almost like some kind of sick advertisement for the soda brand. They didn’t pay for the product placement, did they?
- If you lived in the world that The Man and Wife did, would you bring a child into it? I’m not so sure most people would…
Photo: Kodi Smit-McPhee and Viggo Mortensen in “The Road.” Courtesy: The Weinstein Company.