Reviewed by Galen Strickland
As I have stated in the past I choose to do reviews only for things I can recommend to others. Of course, I have rather eclectic tastes, and in this particular instance I have to invoke a caveat. This is probably the best film released in 2009 (that I have seen) but very few people are going to like it. I think the depressing nature of the story is what held up the release for well over a year after production was complete, and even though Sony and Dimension Films positioned it late in the year (thus for Oscar consideration) it did not receive any nominations. In a year in which the field was expanded to ten films for Best Picture that is an absolute travesty of justice. I saw it yesterday at a discount theater, but if it ever played my town in first release I must have blinked and missed it.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road tells the story of a man and his son on a trek across an apocalyptic wasteland following some undisclosed tragedy. We never know (in the film or the book) if it was a nuclear holocaust (most likely), a biological plague or cataclysmic natural disaster. All we do know is that there are very few people left, and most of those have resorted to thievery, murder, and even cannibalism. The belief is that all other animal life on Earth has perished, although there is a scene toward the end when the Man and Boy discover a beetle that is still alive and it flies away from them, symbolically indicating that there is a possibility of life's renewal no matter how bleak the situation is for the main characters themselves.
Viggo Mortensen does an excellent job in a difficult role, and I also have to give high praise to Kodi Smit-McPhee as his son. There were quite a few times where I could see a definite resemblance between him and the actress who portrays his mother (Charlize Theron, seen only in dream sequences), but it is obviously not the only reason he was cast. Other supporting roles feature some prominent actors even though they are on screen just a few minutes each. Due to heavy make-up, wardrobe, and their dirt and grime-smeared faces, it would be easy for some to not recognize Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce, although Garret Dillahunt is unmistakable as a blood-thirsty highwayman.
But the actors are not the reason to see this film, even if like me you will more than likely not feel compelled to watch it a second time. Like the story itself, the production is in line with the bleak and forboding landscape the Man and Boy traverse. Very little dialogue is necessary to get the point across, and the cinematography and set design are as equally depressing as the cold and hunger the characters are suffering. So why am I recommending it? In one of his infrequent voice-over narrations, the Man recounts something he has told the Boy (I am paraphrasing from memory here): "When you dream about bad things happening, it means you're still fighting and you're still alive. It's when you start to dream about good things that you should start to worry."
Perhaps it is in the worst possible scenario where we will discover just what type of person we are. Will we be one of the "good guys" or will we be one of the ones to prey on the weaker and helpless we encounter? The Man does his best to instill the idea that no matter how bad it gets, no matter what happens to them or what horrors they encounter, they must remain the "good guys." The Boy learns that lesson as well as the Man could have hoped, and in fact has to remind the Man a couple of times of that promise.
As much as this story is about what horrors man can inflict on himself and his world, it is also about the spirit of love, hope, honor, loyalty and courage that resides in most of us if only we will allow the "good guy" side of us to survive.
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