With Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall. Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language. 119 minutes.
Here’s the story: a man and his son are on the run. Surrounded by danger, they don’t know whom to trust. The rest of their family is gone. The father tries to impart his values and survival skills to his son, hoping the boy will survive and live in a better world. Using a well-worn genre as a backdrop, the movie is an allegory about the bonds between fathers and sons.
If you’ve guessed that’s a description of THE ROAD, you’re right but you had the advantage of knowing what movie was being reviewed. It’s also a description of “The Road To Perdition,” the Tom Hanks gangster movie that succeeded where “The Road” fails. Crushed under the weight of its bleak and hopeless premise, this is the feel-bad movie of the year. Why it’s being released at Thanksgiving is a mystery, but don’t see it before you eat.
The world has been hit by something and most of humanity is dead. Civilization as we know it is over, and survival depends on what can be found among the ever dwindling food supply. Some people get creative and see their fellow survivors as the solution to this problem, but a moment’s thought should see that that isn’t a long term solution either. Man (Viggo Mortenson) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wander from place to place looking for shelter and sustenance. Woman (Charlize Theron) does the only sensible thing and checks out of the story early.
One wonders what author Cormac McCarthy and the cinematic adapters of his novel want us to take from this. It’s not a cautionary tale. It’s not warning us of impending nuclear war or ecological disaster. We have no idea if what created this world was preventable and, if it was, what it would take to prevent it. Neither can it be a celebration of “where there’s life there’s hope” because this world is so horrendous that the obvious question asked by Woman – why go on? – is never really answered.
As Man and Boy meet other people with similarly descriptive names like Old Man (Robert Duvall) or The Thief (Michael Kenneth Williams) one can easily make the argument that the people who didn’t survive are far better off. Humanity has been reduced to a near-animal existence. No matter how much Man tries to be an appropriate role model and guide, there’s no getting around the fact that all these people are doomed, whether they or the filmmakers care to admit it.
In terms of acting one can’t really say that Mortensen or anyone else has created a character in the sense we usually mean. At best we can say they take the roles seriously enough that we can accept their hellish existence at face value. There’s no winking at the audience. You’ll leave the theater glad to be back in the real world where terrorism, economic crises and swine flu pale in comparison.
That doesn’t make this worth seeing. Alas, this “Road” is long and hard, but it leads nowhere.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.