Thursday, February 12, 2009

"The Road" (2009)

I never cared much for John Hillcoat's THE PROPOSITION, which struck me as a movie that confused violence with psychology. I guess it's fitting that Hillcoat was asked to make a film of Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD - a book which I didn't read, but the synopsis of which indicates a story of bare cruelty run amok in a post-apocalyptic world.

I saw a sneak preview of it tonight in Beekman Theatre, and even though this version is said not to be final, I don't suppose any major changes will be applied to it. It holds up very well, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Hillcoat actually downplaying physical violence and/or torture, building up the characters and their relationships instead.

There is a major challenge in making a film about a world that is doomed for good, because there's little or no chance of a happy conclusion. ON THE BEACH (1959), TESTAMENT (1983), or first 20 minutes of WALL-E (2008) - all of them deal with a world with no hope and with lives about to end collectively (in WALL-E, the Earth is vacant already). THE ROAD makes its task even harder by injecting so much cruelty into its reality. No Jane Alexander to lift up everyone's hearts here: the mother figure played by Charlize Theron commits suicide and leaves her husband and her little kid to take care of themselves.

The plague of THE ROAD's dying world is cannibalism. The Man and the Boy (as McCarthy named them, in a rather Griffithian manner) are running away from organized groups of cannibals ready to devour anyone who has enough humanity left in them not to join the bloody ranks.

Actually, Hillcoat's depiction of cannibal groups is the weakest ascpect of the film. The way they move, the way they leave bloody traces everywhere, the way they're are filmed (hardly a close-up of any of them in the whole film) -- well, they're just like refugee characters from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). Our collective imagination is infected too much by Romero's ghouls for us *not* to think of them while watching THE ROAD. It counts as a weakness, because it makes our emotions easier to deal with - we simply follow our responses from watching any of the LIVING DEAD movies (or, in one sequence in a semi-deserted house, of watching THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE).

Overall, this fairly satisfying movie seems to be too wary of its audiences, and in all bad ways. It is afraid to present itself as too much of a downer, so it's channeling our emotions into familiar sentimental traits.

Anyway, how can one fully respect a movie that manages to include a line like "I sincerely hope for a great nothingness after I die", and then to go straight into product placement of Vitamine Water and Spam...? THE ROAD has all the safety valves firmly in place, and that keeps it from being truly explosive and unsettling.