I was really hesitant about going to a Variety screening of The Road (opening Nov. 25), the long-delayed movie based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, because the story is so depressing. It’s about a nameless man and his son trying to survive after the apocalypse by any means short of cannibalism (though other survivors engage in that). But star Viggo Mortensen was doing Q & A afterwards along with director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall so I was curious enough to attend. (I learned loads of interesting info; see notes below.)
Well, depressing doesn’t begin to describe the movie. There’s an ongoing reference to how The Man has a gun but only two bullets, which he’s saving for his son and himself in case things get too hopeless for them to go on. Mid-movie, I was screaming in my head, “Give me one of those bullets! Or build a fire and throw me on it!” The story is soul-breaking and gives you only a tiny glimmer of hope at the end.
Stomach-turning plot points aside, however, Road is very well done. Mortensen goes deeply inside a character who’s heart-piercingly tender towards his son but fierce towards all else. He also looks like he ages and becomes more emaciated right before our eyes. Kodi Smit-McPhee, as The Boy, does brave and mature work while maintaining the innocence of a child who’s never known a world where there were living things and enough food to eat. He does look a bit well-fed for the character—his cheeks have baby fat and his lips are plump—but I don’t think I could’ve handled watching a gaunt, sickly child on top of everything else.
Charlize Theron is believably weary as The Woman who just can’t take it anymore, though I suspect her golden hair helped a little in getting her the role. In The Man’s dreams about the life he used to have with her, the world is full of color and The Woman’s bright, shiny hair is the most striking thing in it. It’s a sharp reminder of the lightness he’s lost.
The story asks tough questions: How do you hang on to your humanity when you’re competing with savages to survive in a lawless world? What are you willing to do to keep your child from suffering? How do you know when the last ounce of hope has left your soul? While I hope I won’t ever be tested like this, I appreciate McCarthy’s and the filmmakers’ examination of human nature in a non-sentimental way which still manages to be quite moving.
As mentioned, Mortensen, Hillcoat and Penhall did Q & A after the screening. The session was almost as fascinating as the movie. Some things I learned:
- Director Hillcoat’s favorite disaster movie is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. He was also inspired by The Bicycle Thief for its minimalism and The Grapes of Wrath.
Though the landscape is stark with a gray and brown palette throughout, Hillcoat used real locations instead of green screens. Locations included Pennsylvania because of the strip mining and Louisiana because Katrina clean-up was far from complete. There were about 50 locations total.
- Mortensen said he was cold for real during much of the shoot. Hillcoat told him it’s better to be cold than to pretend to be cold.
- Mortensen is humble, smart, dry-witted and so frakkin’ cool in person. He’s got the easy confidence of someone who’s got nothing to prove to anyone, and brought a copy of the book and a bottle of wine to give out to random audience members who correctly answered trivia questions about the movie.
- Penhall said he loves Sam Shepard as a screenwriter and it’s easy to see why. Both men cover complex and gritty subject matter in minimalistic ways.
- McCarthy told Hillcoat he didn’t miss anything from the book except four lines of dialogue which he asked to be re-inserted. It involved The Boy asking The Man, “What would you do if I died?” The ensuing conversation is verbatim from one the author had with his own son.
- Hillcoat said McCarthy’s favorite film is Fellini’s La Strada, which means The Road.
Nerd verdict: Rough Road but one worth taking