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Posts Tagged ‘John Hillcoat’

You have to admire Viggo Mortensen – not necessarily in the mouth-open, eyes-wide, posters-on-the-wall way that my mother used to demonstrate so well for a few years in the first half of the 2000s, but certainly for the guy’s integrity as an artist and a human being. I mean, there he was, suddenly – and perhaps a little improbably – elevated from jobbing actor to massive international and star and, for ladies of a certain age, heartthrob, with Hollywood beating a path to his door, and what did he decide to do? Well, he made one slightly dodgy mainstream adventure movie, 2004’s Hidalgo, but since then he has concentrated on challenging, critically-acclaimed movies that have nevertheless not exactly filled up the multiplexes on a Saturday night.

He hasn’t proven completely averse to genre movies, however, although most of the thrillers and so on he’s done have been a little bit skewed one way or another. Also John Hillcoat’s 2009 film The Road, which is not quite the film it initially appears to be. This is not a remake of the lost Nigel Kneale TV drama of that title, nor indeed a movie of Jim Cartwright’s celebrated play with a definite article added, but an adaptation of the award-winning novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy.

Something terrible has happened, and civilisation as we know it has collapsed. Most of the world’s animals have died, and the plants are gradually dying. Soon everything will be dead. Making their way through the ruins of the USA are a man (Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). They are heading for the coast, but their ultimate destination remains obscure. The boy’s mother (Charlize Theron) gave birth to him shortly after the disaster, but committed suicide when he was much younger, seeing the man’s determination to stay alive for as long as possible as foolish and futile. Yet he persists in his desperate attempts to keep the pair of them alive and raise his son well, drumming into him that they have to be good guys and ‘carriers of the fire’.

Staying positive at all is a heroic undertaking in the hellish wasteland which the duo find themselves. Food is almost impossible to procure, and bands of cannibalistic survivors are a constant menace. The duo often find themselves on the verge of starving to death. What, quite frankly, is the point of any of it?

So, as you may have surmised, not a lot of laughs in this one. It seems to me very telling that exactly what has befallen the planet is never really made clear – was it a nuclear war? An asteroid strike? Something more esoteric? – for the movie is not really concerned with the details of what has happened. The apocalypse is a necessary backdrop for the story’s concerns, which are those of paternal love and the degree to which the desire to be a good person can turn you into something quite different.

I’m not averse to something post-apocalyptic but The Road makes most films and TV shows in this kind of setting look incredibly frivolous. This is a setting in which not having enough bullets to kill everyone in your family, when the moment finally comes, is a serious problem and source of domestic strife. People just seem to be clinging on hopelessly for as long as they possibly can – and by any means necessary. The film depicts people hunting each other across country, and larders filled with human bodies. Any sense of common humanity seems to have dissipated, replaced by self-interest or the law of the pack or tribe. In short, this movie gives Grave of the Fireflies a run for its money in the bleak and depressing stakes.

As you may have figured out, it takes a fairly serious movie to be quite so downbeat, and for all that it contains moments that any horror movie would be proud of, The Road generally eschews the action-adventure stylings of films in this kind of genre for a more sober, introspective tone. This is matched by the muted, grey-brown tones of most of the movie, and the understated music provided by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. When the film jumps back to a flashback from before the catastrophe, the screen bursts into life and colour and it’s like a sudden vision of heaven – which was surely the intention of the director.

Mortensen, as you might have expected, carries the movie with another intensely committed performance, but he is well supported by Kodi Smit-McPhee (he was also notably good in the Nu-Hammer horror Let Me In, but these days seems to have become marooned in the X-Men franchise). Robert Duvall briefly appears, as does Guy Pearce (this is probably another of those movies that everyone has forgotten Pearce has been in – of course I know Pearce is a movie star, but I’ll be blowed if I can think of more than a couple of the actual films he’s made).

In the end, however, this is a very personal story, one about the precise nature of the catastrophe which the characters have suffered – the loss of security, the loss of hope, the loss of their names, even. The man has become so obsessed with doing the right thing by his son, and teaching him to be a good person, that he has it transform him into someone who has lost track of essential human decency. ‘We’re not going to eat anyone, are we?’ asks the boy, worried, but the man is quite prepared to steal from others and kill in order to protect him. Society has crumbled, but without society what morality can there be?

The movie doesn’t really attempt to answer the question, which is in keeping with the general tenor of the place. The general mood of grim awfulness is so consistently maintained that it’s those moments when the film offers up a morsel of hope which seem oddly incongruous. Nevertheless, an extremely powerful and well-made film, if not an especially easy one to watch.

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