“THE ROAD”

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Yes, “The Road”–based on the Cormac McCarthy novel–is as grim as advertised.  Yes, you might feel the need for a long, hot shower after you’ve seen it.
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But it’s also a powerful, heartbreaking, and–ultimately–uplifting film.
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Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee play a father and son who, as the movie begins, are in the middle of a long, lonely trek across a scarred, post-apocalyptic landscape.  Along the way, they meet a ragtag assortment of similarly bedraggled wanderers, some of whom may be cannibals eager to eat their flesh (apparently, cannibalism runs rampant in this bleak and arid world, although–thank heavens–we never actually get to see any of it).  Most of them, however, are merely thieves eager to steal the pair’s modest belongings, including their food.  According to Mortensen’s voice-over narration, they have been drifting about for years; the land around them is turning grayer, the days and nights colder, and the two of them–man and boy–weaker.  Mortensen’s sole responsibility is to keep them alive by whatever means necessary.  (That’s why he carries a gun.)  It’s a tall order, a nearly impossible task, and the burden of that awesome responsibility is etched deep in the planes of his face.
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Everything in the film is gray (kudos to cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe–and, of course, director John Hillcoat–for not only creating such a singularly nightmarish vision, but sustaining it).  The faces are gray–including that of a desperate, half-blind old man superbly played by a nearly unrecognizable Robert Duvall; the land is gray, as though buried under countless tons of volcanic ash; the sky is gray.  Even the ocean, when they finally reach it–and which the boy had been hoping would be a sparkling blue–turns out to be a whitish gray.  (All that was missing: the mountains of dead fish that should have been floating on top.)
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Nothing–and no one–is ever identified, either.  The man and boy are never named; the country they are trekking through might be America (an easy assumption) or, then again, might not; the ocean they arrive at could be the Atlantic or the Pacific or any other; and even the cause of the destruction is never fully explained.  (Mortensen briefly mentions, early on, a “sheer white light” and a “series of concussions”.  Clearly, then, it must have been a bomb.  But dropped by whom? And why? And when does all of this take place, anyway? Today? Tomorrow? We can only guess.)
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Mortensen–always a versatile actor–is excellent, whether half-hidden beneath layers of grime and stringy hair or, following a much-needed bath late in the film, clear-eyed, fresh-scrubbed and clean; Smit-McPhee is a revelation; Duvall, as noted, might find himself nominated for one of those single-scene supporting actor Oscars that the Academy doles out occasionally; and Charlize Theron, also barely recognizable, is a potent mix of fear and steel-jawed determination as Mortensen’s wife who–as we see is flashback–eventually strikes out on her own and leaves her husband and son to fend for themselves.  They’re essentially one-note performances, to be sure–everyone is suffering to one degree or another nearly every step of the way–but that doesn’t make them any less riveting.
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At its core, of course, this is a tale of survival against almost insurmountable odds, but–more than that–it is also the story of a father’s love for his son.  And, thanks to Hillcoat’s sure-handed direction, the film presents an interesting paradox, too: though it moves along at a glacial pace, it never feels sluggish, or boring; we are never left feeling that Hillcoat has bogged the action down with self-indulgent directorial flourishes.
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Bottom line: find this Road, and follow it to the end.  It’s a harrowing journey, but one you won’t soon forget.
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FILM REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien