Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"The Road": the apocalypse may not be a barrel of laughs

Lately, I've had several in-depth discussions with a group of friends regarding the inevitable zombie apocalypse and how we'll survive it in style. I won't go into the details, both because this isn't another review of "Zombieland", and also because I don't want any opportunists beating us to the punch in Chicagoland in securing transportation, provisions, weapons, shelter, and BASE jumping equipment.

The truth behind these (mostly) whimsical discussions is, however, that if there is some widespread calamity that disrupts our nation's ability to manufacture or import foodstuffs and basic clothing and medical supplies, survival will quickly become a luxury for only the most hardened, ruthless, and lucky of us.

This is the world that "No Country for Old Men" author Cormac McCarthy penned "The Road", an apocalyptic love-song he dedicated to his son. The novel, which was adapted almost verbatim for the big screen, is the story of a man and his son traversing a devastated American northeast in the hopes of reaching the coast and eventually the south to survive the winter. The novel's formatting on the page is stripped and simple - few apostrophes and no quotation marks grace the pages of simple sentences and short paragraphs. The writing emphasizes how bleak the world has become after an unnamed disaster. It makes for an easy transition to the silver screen, where Viggo Mortensen does his best to escort Kodi Smit-McPhee through a barren countryside where canned goods are sparse and roaming bands of cannibals sift through the ash looking for survivors too weak or ill-equipped to defend themselves.

Not much more can be said about the specifics of the plot, as that is about all there is to "The Road". What is at the core is the emotional struggle of a man trying to protect his son and remain one of the "good guys". Can you remain a good guy while denying others a can of your provisions so your son has one more meal a week from now? If you were surrounded by cannibals, could you use your last bullet to make sure your son didn't suffer? I write this as a single man in his mid-20's. The reading and viewing experience had my paternal instincts running so high my blood boiled and eyes grew misty.

The emotional toll of "The Road" doesn't entirely make up for the stripped-down narrative, which is essentially "man and boy walk, eat, walk". While this does occasionally work in the film's favor, especially in an early scene when Mortensen wakes from bed, looks out the window to an unseen horror, and immediately starts filling the bathtub with water, at the end of the film we're not left with much to reflect on beyond our own emotional turmoil.

As is the style with McCarthy, we're left to ponder what to make of everything that happened over the past two hours (recall the often-mocked ending to "No Country For Old Men"?). A line from early in the book and film sums it up, when The Man is looking at The Boy: "If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke."

Life, no matter how grim, and even born out of tragedy, is miraculous.

TOO MUCH: Gray. There has to be other colors in the apocalypse, right? Heart-wrenching music - Slate columnist Dana Stevens nailed it in her review. Viggo Mortensen's ass and ball sac.

COULD HAVE USED MORE: Not much - basically everything in the book is in the film.

FILM SNOB NOTE: Robert Duvall basically unrecognizable - I didn't know he was in the film and thought the Old Man sounded an awful lot like Duvall. Everything that "2012" did wrong, which was a lot, "The Road" got right - watching the apocalypse happen isn't interesting, but the aftermath is. Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce make the most out of small roles, Viggo turns in another great screen performance. Most of the end credits roll with the sounds of suburbia instead of music, for an eerie reminder of all we take for granted.

IHYFM RATING: THREE AND A HALF out of FIVE MEHS. I can't deny the emotional power of the father-son relationship and visceral horrors on screen, but as a movie "The Road" leaves you wishing there was a little more to it. "No Country For Old Men" is a far better bet so far as McCarthy adaptations go.

IF YOU SAID THIS WAS YOUR FAVORITE MOVIE, I'D THINK: When the apocalypse comes, I'm going to mooch a few of your stockpiled canned goods.

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