Film Review: The Road (2009)

I had the opportunity to see a preview screening of The Road last night.

I'll warn you right now: if you're not willing to think for yourself during a film, don't even bother seeing The Road. It's a smart, subtle, dystopic suspense film that does not provide any easy answers. I can also proudly say that the trailer does not show any scene beyond the first twenty minutes of the film, a miracle in the modern age of film promotion.

Viggo Mortensen plays The Man, who is traveling south towards the coast of California with his son, The Boy played by newcomer Kodi Smit-Mcphee. The world as we know it is a wasteland: trees are leafless, the climate has shifted to near-freezing, and earthquakes and thunderstorms are a common occurrence. There are no animals left, only small insects like crickets and flies. Cannibalism is rampant and The Man and The Boy are trying to be "the good guys" and "carry the light"of humanity as they race against death to reach somewhere that might not even exist.

Viggo Mortensen is nothing short of excellent. He plays the perfect protective father willing to do anything to save his child from the threat of murder and worse at every turn. The performance is so layered, with no single emotion ever completely controlling his actions: a moment of joy at discovering food is mitigated by the memory of his wife or a moment of bravery overrun by fear. Director John Hillcoat smartly chooses to rest the entire narrative on Mortensen's shoulders, letting his performance carry a film thin on narrative but strong on character. There are absolutely devastating moments in The Road involving a gun and difficult decisions regarding what it means to protect a child. Mortensen took very shocking moments and made them seem reasonable to the character of The Man.

Another smart directorial decision by Hillcoat was to minimize the impact of Kodi Smit-Mcphee. I'm still not sure if it's the fault of the screenplay, the director, or his own lack of experience, but The Boy, such a pivotal role in the novel, seems insignificant. Most of the scenes require him to put on a blank stare and hold a stuffed elephant and occasionaly say "Papa." When Smit-Mcphee has something to work with in a scene, such as more than one word of dialogue or a different emotion, he's fine. Otherwise, the camera will mostly keep him on screen with Mortensen in every shoot to trick the audience into believing Smit-Mcphee is doing more with a tricky role then staring with a slack expression on his face into nothing.

The only cast member who manages to overshadow Viggo Mortensen is Robert Duvall as Old Man. The performance, though small, is pivotal to the narrative of the film and breathtaking. The amount of pain Duvall brings out of a backstory really interchangeable with any other in the film is a testament to his acting ability.

Director John Hillcoat uses a consistent series of rapid cuts whenever The Man and The Boy enter a new location. No shot will last for longer than five seconds as the screen jerks from a door to a window to The Man to the door to The Boy to a bottle to the floor to the ceiling to The Boy to the window to The Man to The Man to The Boy to a sustained shot. Each shot is a different angle and I found the effect disorienting and distracting. It's almost like Hillcoat didn't trust Mortensen and Smit-Mcphee to sell the danger of any enclosed space with their performance, a misguided assumption as the physicality of the entire cast is perfect for the film.

Be warned that there are three very graphic scenes in the film which had people leaving during the preview screening. The survey even asked if the graphic nature of the scenes was "too violent/not violent enough/just right." I think it's perfectly appropriate and casts the divide stronger between the good of The Man and The Boy and the evil of the cannibals and the danger of paranoid house squatters.

I believe less warning is necessary when I say you see a naked Viggo Mortensen a few times in the film. Apparently in a freezing climate, the smart decision is to go swimming without any clothing on. I'm sure that's a crucial survival tip and not an attempt to show Mortensen's bare rear end up close and personal on the big screen. 

Overall I was satisfied with the film. It's very much a character piece in the vein of There Will Be Blood: slow, methodical, and just enough plot to justify evolving the character. There will inevitably be a big Oscar campaign for this and if it takes off with critics, it could be the "prestige" film in the running for Best Picture.