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Review – The Road

Click poster for more info.

Click poster for more info.

With Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall. Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language. 119 minutes.

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.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.

 

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About Daniel M. Kimmel

Film critic, author, lecturer.

4 responses »

  1. From this review, I can’t actually tell whether you are reviewing the film or the book? The characters have no names for a reason, perhaps, if you had read the book with any thought, you might have noticed. The scarcity of information is supposed to reflect the situation of the characters–look at McCarthy’s use of sparse punctuation. Furthermore, why does this movie have to be a “feel-good movie” when it isn’t supposed to be a feel good movie. I’ve met very few people that haven’t cried at the end of reading the book. A post-apocalyptic world isn’t a wonderful place to be and if they had painted it in such a fashion it would have been a horrific blow to McCarthy’s work.

    As to the premise of this work, you said it yourself, “allegory about the bonds between fathers and sons” can a book simply not be a discussion about bonds between people? Love in the face of, possibly, the worst conceivable situation? Just because it doesn’t have a Disney ending doesn’t mean that their bond, their love, meant nothing. The people are doomed and that’s the point and why on earth would I want to leave the Road wishing to be in the place of any of the characters? I should rather leave being glad that I’m not in their position and perhaps that I can find someone that I love and loves me as much as the man and the boy. You shouldn’t have to know their names and their back stories to be able to understand their connection–actions speak louder than words as they say.

    I see very little criticism of the movie and a whole lot of problems with the book. I was under the impression this was a movie review where one should cite problems with the film that differ from the book, or interpretations of the book and movie specific problems.

    Reply
  2. Daniel M. Kimmel

    I have not read the book and while I am a voracious reader have no desire to read it.

    I was reviewing the movie. It doesn’t need to be a “feel good” film, and I complain about movies with artificially contrived happy endings. However the *film* did not work for me for the reasons I set forth in my review. If the movie was faithful to the book, perhaps that’s why it sounded like I was talking about the book, but I was not.

    While I sometimes have read the book a movie is based on, I feel no obligation to do so, as — for most film adaptations — much of the audience won’t have read it either. The movie has to stand on its own. Any defense of a film that begins, “If you had read the book…” fails as far as I’m concerned.

    I drew a comparison with “Road to Perdition,” another bleak film, precisely because I did get the point of focusing on the father/son relationship. It worked in “Road to Perdition” but, in my opinion, it did not in “The Road.” Your mileage may vary.

    Reply
  3. It’s hard to tell from this review whether you don’t think the movie is worth a more rigorous treatment, or you just missed some of the key points of the movie. You mention that the filmmakers may not admit that death would be preferable over the life depicted in the road just a few sentences after mentioning that Woman makes that choice. Was the Man & Boy story not a suitable counterpoint? The film asks us questions about what humanity is and what evil is. It may not answer them, but I think the questions are important enough.

    Reply
  4. My central disagreement with this review hinges on your apparent assumption that films are required to present the viewer with answers. In this case, you criticize the film for not answering the main question vividly rendered by the film: Is it more noble to fight and survive to the bitter end, or is our survival instinct what leads us to savages? There is no easy answer. MacCarthy understands the paradoxes of moral reasoning.

    You regard the mother as the “sensible” one for because she “checks out of the story early.” That’s a very glib dismissal of the father’s deep resolve to survive, to protect his child. It’s also a disregard for the complexity of emotions associated with our individual confrontation with mortality. Overall, you seem to disregard all the deeply human questions this film asks. It would lead some to reflect on the heartache of facing the inevitable, our fear and helplessness we feel when we realize we cannot always protect our children.

    I also find it odd that out of the entire world of cinema you would decide that it was comparable to The Road To Perdition – was it the title alone? There are far better father / son dynamics one might examine (as if it was the central point of The Road – I argue it isn’t). Even the Fantastic Mr. Fox might be better – because that film also examined (whimsically) what makes men *men* and what makes animals *animals*. And Mr. Fox’s final words were most appropriate – we exist to survive.

    Reply

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