Thursday, November 19, 2009

A letter from Ken: The Road, or, The End.

[Should I mention that I'll now proceed to talk about this movie? There's this word I'm supposed to invoke at this point; although I'm resistant to deploy it, here it is -- spoilers.]
The Road. I saw it.
And it was bleak. We all die, except for an unlucky few among the human race, who meander about a desolate landscape of perpetual fires in a blisteringly cold climate. The sound one most often hears are petrified trees cracking to pieces, echoing like distant, dried out glaciers (if such a thing is even possible).

How did it come about in this particular post-apocolyptic narrative? If one of the early trailers is to be believed, it's from a mess of environmental disasters brought about by human ignorance, apparently by not listening to Al Gore and not building proper levees, etc., etc. (I actually thought I was watching the trailer for Blindness again). It's actually incredibly misleading -- without the benefit of having seen the current tv ad campaign or read the book beforehand, the cause of what is basically the end of the world in The Road is never explained. Ever. And like much else in the movie, it helps to keep everything off-kilter.

Directed by John Hillicoat, whose last outing was the terrific Oz land western, The Proposition, and adapted for the screen by Joe Penhall from Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road pulls no punches. "The end of humanity" is pretty much the most depressing thing out there, and the filmmakers do a really intelligent job of never relenting from this tone. You can find your bearings in the story of a father ("The Man") and son ("The Boy"; the characters are never given Christian names) keeping it together for the sake of each other, but then you always hear those trees cracking. Fine: Even this, you tell yourself, you can get used to, as it is a neat design of sound, but then there's the fact that there are no identifiable signs of color in this world; the whole palette seems intended to tell you no color exists. It got killed or died or was maybe eaten by whatever killed everything else. The color. But, OK: Again, cool, stylistic choice, and even in this you can distance yourself somewhat. But, oh, right...most of the remaining people encountered in this journey, well...they eat each other. Like zombies, except they're still recognizable as human beings, they're still speaking to each other in those terms, yet what they really want to do is eat you. Even if you manage to survive all of this (at least just for the sake of your kid, like "The Man" that Viggo Mortensen portrays), what really starts to get to you are the dreams you've been having of the life you had with your wife (Charlize Theron) and how those were definitely in color and you got to go with her to the symphony and wear nice, expensive clothes and got to sneakily feel up your hot wife's thigh. Before it all went to shit.

I try to convey all this, because I'm having a hard time thinking of a way to really recommend this movie to you. Somewhere in the first ten minutes, the Man reminds the Boy how to put their only pistol with two lone bullets to the temple of his kid-sized head, just in case he needs to. That scene is done in full-close up on the child: The Boy has tears in his eyes as he's resisting, then showing his dad that he can do it and that he's prepared. I mean, it really is fucking depressing.

The Road was amazing to watch, and certainly compelling as you parse out the purpose of all this tragedy. Not that it's particularly tragic; I wouldn't want to oversell it. But really, what is the point? The movie obliquely refers to the fact that a good chunk of the population that likely survived the "event" that caused all this checked themselves out at some point, because it started to become plainly obvious that sticking around only meant that you were a potential meal or that you were in denial that any semblance of "happy days" or "good times" would ever return.

And that's it. The question of "Why go on living?" is never really explicitly answered. There is something at the end that is pretty much the definition of "speck of hope", but even this seems like cold comfort (it even struck me as being somewhat unbelievable in the context of everything else that happens, and I was honestly surprised that this was the ending in the book, but there it is).

What it does have is a visual consistency that is stunning. A bolder move might've been to just film it all in black & white (you know, "stark"), but cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe really makes perfect choices in what he does choose to keep in the color scheme of the picture, and it's enough to convince you of some warmth that keeps you involved in the experience of what the Man and Boy go through. It's there in the can of coke they discover in a resistant vending machine of a long abandoned building, and it's there when they open a tin of peaches in one of the happier moments in the movie. Yes, there's some happy times.

The performances are tremendous -- the entire story is carried on both Mortensen's and the unaffected, unpretentious Kodi Smit-McPhee's strong yet sickly shoulders (an aside -- the digital effects used throughout are effective in that they only ever seem necessary but never so obvious: Mostly in leeching out the color of the images, but then, as the Man and Boy strip naked to take their first bath in too long a time, we really get a sense of how ravaged and starving they really are. It's a testament to their performances that by the time this scene comes around, you believe the actors really stopped eating, too). Everyone else in the cast really only amounts to walk-on performances, but those shine brightly -- Charlize Theron as "The Woman" (whose face time in the trailer also seems to make you think she's in it for awhile; she's not), Garrett Dillahunt ("Deadwood"!), an almost unrecognizable Robert Duvall, poor Michael K. Williams ("The Wire"!!!) near the end, and then Guy Pierce and Molly Parker ("Deadwood"!!) at the very end.

For fans of the book, I can tell you that I read it after seeing the movie and that it's pretty much verbatim. (That arguably single most disturbing scene in the book where The Man breaks the lock to the first cellar and finds the, um, people? It's in the movie, and it's there pretty vividly.) For everyone else, I have to tell you that it's worth seeing, that I liked it immensely, but I can also tell you that the crowd immediately around my section of the screening left wondering how they could even release something like this. Who could watch it? Who would want to? On Thanksgiving weekend, no less!? It does put our economic woes in perspective. It makes you want to give everyone you love in this world a hug. And then maybe everyone else after that.
I mostly just wanted to write something about how I felt watching this movie, but I did want to put it in the classic context of this blog, so to that end, you have a few options for a celluloid tango:

1) The movie I actually thought of initially was Children of Men -- a similar combination of dread and a sense of loss is conveyed throughout, and like the first third or so of Alfonso Cuaron's movie, the entirety of The Road has the feel of an elegy for the world, and what it may feel or look like to be witness to the end of everything. There's even that twinge of hopefulness at end. Or something.
2) WALL*E. You'll feel a lot better afterwards no matter what. Maybe especially if you don't even like WALL*E.
3) Once I gave this some serious thought, it occurred to me that The Road most resembles Kon Ichikawa's (OK, I'll say it) masterpiece Fires on the Plain, which is a little more specific in terms of what is happening and why, but also conveys the same sense of desperation in a world that is ending but not quite soon enough, and the almost absurd yet mundane facts of life (among these, cannibalism) under the circumstances. They even share similar plot points -- the encounters with people along the road, the fires in the distance that are sometimes only heard, and what sometimes seem to amount to illusions of hope: The soldiers in Fires that fight to get to the coast, much like the Man's determination to do the same, and that things will get better for he and the Boy once they achieve this goal. Probably the most comforting thing about Fires on the Plain is that it ends with a definite feeling that this was the end of someone's world, and the rest of the world has moved beyond that (and hopefully evolved) with all of us still on it. Maybe you should watch it after watching The Road. And then buy a kitten. To hug.

Thanks to Ken Tan for contributing this post!!


Albert said...

Seeing the kind of money that 2012 brought it, at least it's nice to know that there is an end of the world movie coming in which we don't feel fine. However, even that might not be enough to get me out to the theater. Having read the book I can honestly say there is very little in there that I wanted to see projected onto a giant screen (especially the "um, people").

I appreciate the comparison to "Children of Men" minus of course the brilliant Michael Caine, who could bring a little levity to any global catastrophe. Actually, most of all this review makes me want to watch Ichikawa's - Fires on the Plain... which I'm sure is a movie I should have already heard of, but I am not half the cinephile that Mr. Tan is, but I know that he doesn't throw the word "masterpiece" around lightly :)

Peter said...

How about "The Road" and "Planet of the Apes"....the Heston version, natch? Double dystopian futures for Double Featurette?