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June 2010

The Road

cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, and Charlize Theron

director: John Hillcoat

108 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Icon DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
review by Barbara Davies

The Road

After some unspecified apocalypse, a man and his young son travel under leaden skies through a dead landscape riven by earthquakes. They are pushing a shopping trolley filled with their meagre possessions, heading south, towards the sea. Food is scarce, the weather appalling, and thieves and cannibals threaten their every step. Only two bullets remain in the man's gun. And though there is no longer any healthcare, he has developed an ominous cough...

I hadn't read the Pulitzer prize-winning book by Cormac McCarthy on which this film is based, but I'd heard excellent things about it. Perhaps that was my mistake - I started The Road with too high expectations. Put simply: I didn't care about the protagonists and found the father/ son relationship smothering rather than tender. Genre post-apocalyptic novels and films usually have an action plot in addition to the basic survival setting, but The Road doesn't. So the first hour drags, in spite of literally colourful flashbacks to the man's (Viggo Mortensen) life with the woman (Charlize Theron) pre-catastrophe, until thankfully Robert Duvall arrives on the scene. Duvall's poignant cameo is all too brief, alas, and the finale, featuring a barely recognisable Guy Pearce, feels long overdue.

Far from being uplifting, The Road only needs a soundtrack by Leonard Cohen (rather than that supplied by Nick Cave) to make you want to slit your wrists. Its setting is grim to the point of hilarity. It's also inconsistent. Supposedly no animals at all have survived (not even rats and cockroaches?) yet suddenly we are presented with a dog. As this is the USA, there also seem to be far too few survivors, and women in particular are under-represented. But then, femaleness seems barely to impinge on McCarthy's consciousness.

There's an unfortunate whiff of misogyny to The Road - was it really necessary to emphasise the special bond between father and son by implying that wives and mothers are defeatists who will only let you down? To be fair, I suspect the chief problem is that what works on the printed page - heavy-handed symbolism ("we are carrying the fire") and overwrought dialogue ("if the child is not the word of God, then God never spoke") - simply doesn't convince on the big screen.

As the man, Viggo Mortensen (A History Of Violence) tries his level best (while hidden behind a straggly beard), but never really succeeds in engaging viewer sympathy - a drawback given he is onscreen throughout. Kodi Smit-McPhee (Romulus, My Father) does sterling work as the boy but, although in real life he's a teenager, he plays his character as much younger than seems feasible - a Lord Of The Flies scenario would make a young child feral, but this one is surely too innocent and helpless to survive. And as the god-fearing, rheumy-eyed Eli, Robert Duvall (Apocalypse Now, Network) steals every scene he's in.

Guy Pearce (Bedtime Stories, The Hurt Locker) is hidden behind another straggly beard and cursed with bad teeth, and has little to do, but there's more genuine emotion in his character's brief encounter with the boy than Mortensen manages with all his kissing and pawing. As for Charlize Theron (Monster), I can't help wondering why she accepted such a thankless role, but perhaps the physical resemblance between her and Smit-McPhee was simply too good an opportunity to pass up.



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