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The Road

tn_theroadTHE ROAD is a good movie, better book. If you’re thinking about reading it but haven’t got to it yet I’d say read it, then see the movie. The movie (directed by John Hillcoat, who did THE PROPOSITION) is very faithful to the book (by Cormac McCarthy, who did No Country For Old Men) and illustrates it well, but it can’t really do the same thing.

In case you don’t watch Oprah, the story is about a man and his son after civilization has been destroyed by some unnamed disaster. They’re cold, hungry and worn out and trying to push their little cart of belongings across the United States to the coast. They don’t even really know what they expect when they get there, they just don’t know what else to do.

mp_theroadThis is not a fun or cool looking post-apocalyptic world – wait for Denzel doing kung fu in BOOK OF ELI if that’s what you’re looking for. This is a long, cold walk through the rain. They have a few run-ins with thieves and cannibals, but it’s not an action movie.

To nobody’s surprise Viggo Mortensen gives an outstanding performance as the father, showing his love for the kid and constant fear of attackers. He’s capable with his pistol but never seems like a warrior or a badass. He’s just a regular guy with a realistic view of what it takes to survive. He’s a man of few words (and less than in the book, I think) but manages to say a few simple things that inspire the kid and keep him going.

The kid playing the kid is named Kodi Smit-McPhee, and he’s real good too. They have a good chemistry, they seem like a real father and son. The two of them are in the whole movie, but the other actors who pop up for short periods of time are all good too. I’d especially single out Garret Dillahunt in a memorable tiny role as a scary redneck. (Hey, he was in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN too. He knows his McCarthy.)

Nothing in the movie looks stylized. There’s devastated scenery, but nothing show-offy. Alot of it is found locations in places where famous disasters happened, like New Orleans or Mt. St. Helens, or just places CGI’d to look more grey and bleak and dead. Nobody wears hockey masks or shoulder pads – these survivors wear heavy winter coats. Viggo has a long, filthy beard. Everybody’s shoes are all worn through and haphazardly repaired – they seem to be one of the most important possessions for a survivor in this world. If anybody found a Niketown or an Adidas Store they probly made out well.

Another thing that would be useful would be a Segway. I wish these two found a couple Segways, that would really help them out. But they’re not that lucky.

Anyway as I was saying these aren’t road warriors, they’re homeless people scavenging for leftover cans of food, and trying to avoid other people, because no one can be trusted. Nobody wears leather jackets. They don’t look cool, they look filthy. It’s a very realistic look. To be honest alot of the young guys in bands now try to look like this, they got this whole fucking scraggly flea-ridden beard look going on now, or “fauxbo” I’ve heard it’s called. But other than to rocknrollers this is not a desirable look, it’s a miserable refugee look.

I only noticed a few things left out from the book, like the boy getting really sick and the infamous baby-on-a-spit. Mostly it’s pretty much the same. The most noticeable addition is some short flashbacks with Charlize Theron as the mother. She’s mentioned in the book when he dreams about her, but this gives a few more specifics of when she had the kid and what happened to her. I really like that the book doesn’t explain those things, but the way they do it in the movie works. It really emphasizes the difference between their attitudes. The mother thinks everything is so bleak that she doesn’t want to face it, but the father thinks no matter how bad things get you should try to survive.

But, I mean, things are so bad that it’s an everyday concern to save enough bullets to kill yourself if you get cornered. And the father teaches the son where to aim when putting a gun in his own mouth. He comes close to killing his own kid more than once. You think things are bad because your car got stolen, right? How’s about living in a world where most people you run into want to rape and eat you?

(I’m against it. Let’s not let things get that way, I’m thinking.)

As filthy and joyless as this world is, I think the story is ultimately optimistic, and that’s what I like best about it. In the book I found it profoundly moving, in the movie maybe not as much but it had echoes of my original feelings. In a world where finding a can of Coke is like getting a Golden Ticket, and where ordinary people try to kill each other because each thinks the other is following them, this father still thinks life is worth living just to be with his son. And even a kid who grew up in that world – never seen a sunny day, an ocean, a bird – wants to go against what his father teaches him and give some of his food to starving strangers, even one who robbed them. That means that helping people is human nature too – not just trying to survive. Otherwise why’d this kid know to do it? There is hope.

And I noticed the kid is wearing his mother’s hat, and a women’s sweater that might’ve been hers too. This reminds you that he’s all the father has left of his wife, but also that he has the potential to be like his mother and not want to survive anymore. That doesn’t happen, though. He wants to survive, he wants to carry the fire.

This didn’t really need to be a movie, but seeing it visualized like this actually made that part of the message hit closer to home. Seeing these people with their worn down faces, rotted teeth, callused hands and filthy clothes it’s impossible not to think of pre-apocalyptic homeless people we see every day. It made me think of a man just the night before who shook my hand and told me he was missing an eye and a leg and he had no food and I was a good man so could I give him 50 cents. I didn’t have any change, and I didn’t give him anything. The truth is I don’t have much money, but I live a simple life. I could’ve gave him a dollar, five dollars, and still get by. I’ve given people more than that before, wanting to believe their stories, knowing I really can’t, sometimes feeling burnt.

It just seems so hopeless. You want to help people out, you don’t want to see them suffer. If you’re a Christian, or if you hate Christians and just want to show up the phony ones, you want to help the poor like Jesus said. But you’re not stupid, you know most of these guys are alcoholics or drug addicts, or even if they’re not they’re mentally ill, and even if they spend it on food it’s not gonna solve their problems, they’re still gonna be out there begging every day, they’re not closer to getting back on their feet just because you gave them something to spend at Jack in the Box. And even if it did help, if you live in a city like I do, especially times like these, you run into a bunch of people asking for money every day, or see them sleeping on the street. You can’t help every one of them.

And anyway what happens if I lose my job, or have some health problem my limited health insurance can’t help me with? I don’t have a whole lot to fall back on. I need to look out for myself. That’s what the father is saying. But the kid is saying I know that, but I have to do something anyway, I’m one of the good guys. It made me wish I did give that guy some money.

But then on the way out of the theater somebody else asked me for money, and I felt guilty but I just looked him in the eye, said “Sorry” and kept walking. So the book is better.

This entry was posted on Sunday, November 29th, 2009 at 3:49 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “The Road”

  1. No baby-spit scene? Oh well, I’ll still go see this (actually, it will probably make me want to see it a little more). You should check out John Hillcoat’s first film Vern, GHOSTS OF THE CIVIL DEAD, which mesmerising.

  2. Have been waiting for this for ages. But Vern, I really expected a comparison between this movie and the 2012 thing. They are both apocalypse movies. This one (if it’s close to the book) seems to be more realistic, but not as good a watch as the book was to read, you say. We have seen the world end dozens of times in the movies by now. These have raised some valuable questions for those of us interested in the bad ass variety of the cinema. Is the end of the world scenario a good place for bad asses to make use of their qualities? Should bad asses be environmentally more aware as their qualities can only shine in a world where most people have enough food and the ecology is surviving? Is the promise of a reward, like money or a chick, more motivating to a badass then having to save a crippled world, or to save people in a crippled world without cans of coke? Some important questions are raised in my opinion.

  3. McCarthy books always take forever for me to read. I usually get them, spend a month trying to get through them, get frustrated, put it away angry about wasting my time, read a Stephen King or something like that to recharge my batteries, then a couple months later, I’ll get bored, pick up whichever book it was I quit on, start reading and for some reason on this second try I always get hooked and wind up plowing through. It took me a month to get 50 pages into The Road, but when I picked it up again, I read it in a night a cried at the end. Weird.

  4. Well this review is hilarious and kinda personal (says Captain Obvious).
    I don’t think you should try to help every homeless person, instead help your close relatives first.
    “Nobody wants to go to the land of cannibals to feed some hungry mouths”, – that’s from Forrest Gump)

  5. I think the most significant accomplishment of THE ROAD is how it demonstrates the effect the apocalyptic event has had on the human ability to express itself, to communicate and to relate to others and to objects. The world that once existed has been really effectively supplanted by the new, harsh world, and the language used by the characters reflects that change. When presented with relics from the pre-apocalyptic world, Viggo’s character seems to struggle to relate to the objects, and the few memories that are evoked are fragments. It’s as if the hard-wiring in his brain has been altered. It means something else to be human in the new context.

    In movies, PASD (Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder) is usually pretty superficial. In THE ROAD it plumbs some interesting depths. If Heston laments “you blew it all up” in PLANET OF THE APES, THE ROAD asks its characters to struggle to even comprehend what the “it” that was “blown up” was.

    The film also communicates the ecological aspect of the catastrophe really well using small events, like trees falling down. It’s a very convincing dying world.

  6. speaking of Viggo, does anybody here remember a movie called The Reflecting Skin? i don’t know if it was his first movie, but it was a long time ago. this young boy thinks his older brother’s (Viggo’s) new girlfriend is a vampire. although that synopsis does the movie no justice. really cool fucked up film as i remember it. several lines that my friends and i still quote to each other. i remember it bein well worth checking out, but i probably haven’t seen it in 15 years. Vern, anybody else, ever seen this film?

  7. To tell the truth, I thought the book was really disappointing – I think if Cormac McCarthy could find new words for ‘if’ ‘and’ or ‘but’, he would use them. For a savage world, he seemed intent on a lot of flowery description and, forgive the contradiction, he really weighs his books down with words. Considering how grey and destroyed everything is, there’s not a lot of language required. It didn’t impact me the way ‘On the Beach’ did, or ‘Day of the Triffids’ – those seeemd even more scary to me, because that was humanity burning out.

    My hopes for the film are high, though, unless the soundtrack is full of cello.

  8. Once again, nice work, Vern. Good stuff.

  9. Lovely review Vern. I spent 2 months living in the Tenderloin in SF – and completely relate to what you are saying re. the homeless. I think it’s a key to one of the main points of the book – ‘Carrying the fire”. The fire (any fire, metaphorical or otherwise) spreads. The Dad keeps talking about it to his son, but doesn’t really understand it. He wants to contain it and protect it. The son intuitively knows that it must be spread. Or something. I love that book so dearly – I was reduced to a quivering wreck by the climax because of the overwhelming combination of sadness and hope it dramatizes. Glad the film doesn’t betray it.

    Now, Where’s your Fantastic Mr. Fox review. Holiday is over – no slacking.

  10. This movie hit me like a punch in the nuts, took the strength out of me and took the fun out of the evening. I rmember the book being more uplifting.

  11. Limey: It’s a very understated soundtrack, piano and violin, and long stretches with no music at all. Nowhere near as good as Cave & Ellis’ other stuff, but perfectly fine for the film. The compositions are conventional, with no dissonance. No cello that I was able to hear.

  12. I’m skipping this review for now . I want to read the book and then see the movie (and I’m currently starting off with King’s The Dome, so it will take a while….man that book is huge!). I just want to point out that that poster up there looks like the fusion of LoneWolf and Cub with Stalker ( either the movie or the Strugatzky’s original book) . And that’s incredibly cool.

  13. The language in The Road is spare compared to some of the prose in, say, Suttree. I thought the film did a really good job adapting a book that’s difficult to adapt. Whenever the prose gets so thick as to be impossible to preserve in a filmic adaptation, I think the most effective approach is to capture it laterally with cinematography. This movie did that. I agree that it’s not quite as great as the book is in its medium, but overall I think it was a very strong and uncompromising film. Wish I could say more but it’s off to bed. Hope that apocalypse hits before I have to get out of bed for work tomorrow.

  14. The reason for the book being better in the end is pure gold.

  15. Thanks for your thoughtful point about homelessness. One of my biggest pet peeves about living in the city is the way people go on and on complaining about the homeless and the cowardly way they dehumanize them and edit them out of their lives. Look, your life is your life, and I’m not going to tell you what you should do with your money or compassion. But when another human being asks you for help, especially help that you could easily provide… tell him or her no if you want, but you owe it to them to at least acknowledge they exist. One of the most painful experiences I’ve ever watched is this old homeless man walking around the metro, trying to talk to people. Not even asking for money, just a lonely old man trying to find someone to talk to. It was as if he was invisible. Not a person on that platform even ackowledged he was there with so much as a dismissal. They stared ahead so they wouldn’t have to make eye contact.

    I don’t know if its shame or fear or discomfort, but homelessness allows us to dehumanize people in a way which is really sickening. I tend to believe, though, that its shame more than anything else that compells people to refuse to see someone. They know they could help, but they don’t want to. And they don’t want to think of themselves as the sort of people who wouldn’t help an old man with a few lousy coins. So, the problem has to dissapear. Which, all too often, is exactly what happens to these people. Plenty of people fall through the cracks in this society, but the homeless are among the least cared for — and there are more now than ever, even around here where the economy hasn’t been hit quite as hard as lots of other places.

  16. Only 15 comments. I think Vern just sucker-punched his readership into silence by going all philosophical on them.

    But what DO you do? You get jaded. I’ve lived in the Tenderloin off and on for around 8 years, Telf (depends on if you consider Geary part of the TL) and you get pretty thick skin. There was a time in my life when, had I seen someone sprawled on out a sidewalk in broad daylight, I’d have at least checked to see if he was alive. It would have been unusual enough a sight to warrant my attention. Now I just try to walk quietly so as not to wake him up. Lots of these guys sleep during the day in busy areas and then walk around all night to avoid getting their heads kicked in.

    Sometimes I stick an extra buck or two in my pocket to give out in case anyone asks. On the days that I do that, no one ever seems to. But they always do when I don’t have any cash on me.

    As for the movie, most of the reviews I’ve read are saying it follows the book pretty literally, but misses its essence somehow. This can happen. (Huston’s Under the Volcano comes to mind.) Guess I’ll have to see it and decide for myself.

  17. frankbooth- I think the reason no one really commented was because no one has seen the movie yet. I know, once I finally see it, I’ll drop some comments.

  18. I live in New York, where giving change to the homeless is like visiting the Statue of Liberty: strictly for tourists. I usually blow right by them, but if the dude makes eye contact with me, I can’t bring myself to ignore him. I think about the fact that I just spent six bucks on a used copy of DRAINIAC or some bullshit like that and it makes me feel guilty, so I usually give him something.

    And it’s not just the homeless. I get people coming up to me all the time who just need a little cash to get on the subway or something. They usually have a whole story worked out, but I feel bad making them run through it, like they need to put on a little song and dance just to get some spare change. Of course, there’s always the dude who ruins it by complaining when I only hand out a buck. I’m not asking for an excessive display of gratitude, but giving you anything is fucking optional, buddy. I worked hard for that buck. What the fuck did you do?

  19. I live in Vancouver, and if I gave a dollar to every homeless person I encounter in an avreage day I’d be broke. Watch the Olympics in a couple months if you don’t believe me.

  20. I mean, the issue is more along the lines of how much responsibility to we have towards our fellow humans? Obviously, its impossible to successfully help everyone who needs it. But where do we draw the line? Is our responsibility to do as much as we can? Or is it to do as much as we feel like? Or do we only have responsibility to ourselves? Nearly any interaction on any level with any human as some level of potential risk, but should that factor into the degree to which we are obligated to do something for them? And if we do choose to either help them or ignore them (or, I suppose, rape and then eat them) why do we make that choice? What kind of moral code pushes us to treat others the way we do?

  21. Damn, even the review is bleak as hell.

  22. I’m more excited to watch this then Avatar. And i don’t say this as to play at being “mr art-house guy” or some bullshit like that. It’s just that i have a lot of good will toward Hillcoat since i seen GHOST OF THE CIVIL DEAD, and specially what is becoming oneof my new favorite movies, THE PROPOSITION, a movie i have no shortage of awe at. And i ahve been reacting a bit less enthusiastic to all of Avatar’s trailers. Maybe i’m starting to get hard to get for this big trailer for big movies, and they no longer work for me as they used to when i was a teenager and early adult. I’m imune. Avatar will have to hype itself when i watch it, not through it’s marketing machine. As for THE ROAD, i have the filmmaker, the cast, the composers to get my whole fill of excitement, and i am.

  23. Jesus Christ, just finished the audiobook and I think I can safely say this is not something you should listen to in work. I had people looking at me like I was some kind of mental patient as I fought to hold back the tears. I’m not even sure I want to see the movie now, I’m not sure I could take it.

  24. This finally came out on video. Looking forward to checking it out soon.

  25. Always too scared to watch this movie in case it drops me into a pit of despair..

    On the homelessness -giving thing (Deep breath)

    It’s a constant question for everyone with a conscience but a friend of mine (Who’s a special needs teacher so I figure he’s got his karma circuit covered) told me a while back about how a homeless charity in his hometown told him that they had more than enough places for everybody but people still avoided going there because they didn’t feel safe/comfortable.

    He resolved from this point on to give an annual donation to said charity for the improvement of the conditions at the shelters.

    When he moved here to Dublin he set up a monthly payment to one of the major homeless charities here.

    In Dublin begging has become quite commonplace and a couple of years ago, aggressive begging became quite commonplace.(supplemented by organised Roma gypsy groups working the streets – how do I know they’re not homeless? Well I can only vouch for the family that I used to see begging around the city centre who were in fact my next door neighbours out in the Suburbs) and it seemed apparent that a large number of people begging were not homeless.

    Add to this the experience of friends from my time in college who stayed on the path to social work and work with the homeless and the addicted in shelters and home service provision who noted that most of the homeless people they work feel too much pride to beg and are much more likely to just try and stay busy in other ways for the hours that they are forced out of the shelter.

    Of the people begging a substantial number are feeding a habit. There’s one guy I always recognise who started off about four years ago, looking young and healthy and often better dressed (grooming and tastewise) than me, who nowadays staggers around with a sleeping bag and a plastic sheet over his shoulders looking gaunt and wasted (pretty sure he is homeless but in the category of men likely to be victimised or intimidated in shelters).

    The charitable organisations working in the city provide shelters, advocacy, accommodation and employment services mobile cafes (NoBucks Cafe is a wittily titled RV that serves a lot of the alcohol/drug addicts in the roughest edges of the inner city) and are likely to give assistance with better and fairer judgement than I will.

    So that’s my strategy too…or will be again when I get a job.

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