What happened to the The Road? I’m not referring to the filmmaking when I ask this question but to the distribution. A film originally scheduled as a wide release was unexpectedly changed just prior to its release date to a limited, platform release. From what I can tell, no one, outside of the Weinstein Company executives perhaps, seems to know why. Audiences have anxiously awaited the release of this film for over a year. Now, many of them will have to wait to see it when it is released on DVD or drive a distance in order to view the film in a cinema. This unexpected change in the distribution has caused considerable damage to the expectations surrounding this film as much as the expectations themselves have.
Many people have mentioned to me that the reviews for the film haven’t been very good. I found this confusing as most of the reviews I have read actually say that the film is good…just not great. A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times ended with ‘And, for the most part, they succeed. “The Road” is engrossing and at times impressive, a pretty good movie that is disappointing to the extent that it could have been great. Is this the way the world ends? With polite applause?’ In a world in which most of the fare that is seen at the box office is mediocre when it comes to story, message and performance, this ending line of his review is unfair. Psychologically, what we envision in our head is perfection, and nothing man-made is perfect in reality. So when a man-made film comes out with perfection as the bar, it is sure to fall short. Instead of reviewing the film in front of them, reviewers end up comparing it to the film it was expected to be in their minds. And truthfully, grand applause at the end of this film would have been inappropriate. It would have meant that the film had failed. It would have meant that the film had created the kind of manipulative, overly sentimentalized Hollywood fare that normally receives booming applause. In reality, this is the kind of film that at the end of it you should be in a state of both sorrowful and hopeful reflection. This is the kind of film that haunts you long after you have left the theatre. (And yes, Mr. Scott, this is how the world ends. If you want something more spectacular go see 2012!)
So as an alternative to the professional reviews, here’s what I saw when I drove 2 hours in order to see this film that I have been waiting to see for over a year. A film for which I had high expectations…
If you haven’t seen this film yet, it is imperative that you see it on a big screen. To see this film on a small screen would do a disservice to the beauty and horror that Javier Aguirresarobe has captured. It is vast, demolished and unerringly real. The images of torn up highways and burned forests, of abandoned buildings and looted supermarkets, of gray, sooty skylines and a colorless ocean are contrasted with minimal moments like that of a crystal clear waterfall and a lone colorful beetle that accurately reflects how even in the face of destruction there is still beauty to be found. It must be noted that the film was shot on location in the United States with almost no CGI. While many in the audience may not realize this particular production fact, it causes one pause. How far away are we from the visions on the screen when the locations of the story are the locations of our reality? It is this very type of question that crossed my mind while I watched the film. A good film should inspire this very type of thought. In fact, the great ones do.
Joe Penhall’s screenplay is so true to the novel it is uncanny. There seemed to be no attempt by the filmmakers to turn the minimalist dialogue into that which would be comparable with the more formulaic style that Hollywood generally puts out. As McCarthy did in the novel and Penhall did in the screenplay, you have a vision of what it might be like to be two people alone in a world that is almost dead. What conversations would you have? How much would you actually have to say when your only goal was survival? It is in the vignettes of images that the story finds its words. And the film is in a sense, just as the book was, a series of vignettes connected by a father’s desire to keep his son alive and a son’s desire to retain his humanity. This is what made the book amazing and what the film successfully and hauntingly portrays. It’s not about sparkling dialogue or dramatic speeches. It is about journey.
Critics break down a film into its various elements and analyze them as separate entities, instead of looking at how those elements contribute to the overall portrayal of the narrative. What is the purpose of a film? For me, it’s always been about the story, and if all I remember is one moment for what could be considered a technical reason then the film has failed. John Hillcoat seems to be focused on the story almost from beginning to end. In fact, the one failing I saw in the film was that it seemed to try too hard at the beginning. In the first fifteen minutes of the film, it was almost as if they wanted the audience to know immediately that this would be a difficult and moving film. Once you get past those first fifteen minutes and the film settles in, it no longer seems to be going for sentimentality but revealing the truth of the situation. The way the film briefly shows the moments of the horror of cannibalism and murder, cutting away quickly, as one would probably do if actually witnessing these images in the real world, just adds to the truth of the film. In this respect the filmmaker acts toward the audience as the Man acts toward his son. It is about providing the knowledge that is necessary yet not gratuitously or obsessively focusing on the horror. There is no need to linger on these images. They are there, they are real, they are accepted as part of how life is at that given moment. In contrast, there are moments where you can’t help but smile, an involuntary reaction that almost hurts. Out of all of the horror that you see on the screen, when the Boy tastes a soda for the first time or the Man reads a bedtime story to his son or they eat the first really good meal they’ve had in ages, you actually feel it with them. You remember that real joy that comes from the simple things in life, those things that we have become complacent about.
In great part these moments, both the horrific and joyful ones, would not have been successful had it not been for the performances. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee are father and son, an entity so entwined and yet so separated. These two adept actors – one so incredibly experienced, one so excitingly fresh – subtly capture the reality of this relationship which we realize is so universal regardless of the circumstances. The gentle stroking of the child’s head as he sleeps, the anger that comes from fear and the discipline that follows, the pleading for something wanted and the denial that all parents must show their children at times. We recognize them as experiences in our own lives, right now. Michael Willams and Robert Duvall in the brief moments when they are on screen also subtly yet completely capture all the contradictions that are wrapped up in being human. When I read the book, what I was left with was a feeling of hopefulness, despite the grim circumstances. When I left the movie theatre, what I was left with was a feeling that humanity, at its worst and best, is not something specific to the characters and circumstances portrayed but one that we must struggle with everyday.
In contemplating why this film didn’t have a better reception by the critics and even perhaps by the audiences, I think ultimately it must somehow be connected to our imaginations and the way we view reality. This story is something that we can imagine, and how we imagine it will never be what the reality is. When we read the book, we focus on the situation but not necessarily what it might look like. This film shows us what it might look like, and perhaps we don’t like what we see. For what we see is something that is not so far removed from where we are, in reality, right now. This is not an easy film to watch. It doesn’t pull at your heartstrings, making you sob uncontrollably at the beauty of kindness or the goodness in man. It makes you hurt in a private way as you evaluate your own humanity in all of its failures and possibilities.