Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009

The Road at the End?

Viggo Mortensen’s Apocalypse

By David Luhrssen
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In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, the world has all but stopped turning. The Pulitzer Prize-winning story never explains the ecological catastrophe that rapidly overwhelmed the Earth and destroyed civilization, wiping out the larger part of humanity well before the opening sentence. The cause of this global holocaust was unclear to the unnamed protagonist, a father whose only “warrant” is to preserve the life of his boy. To this end, they keep on the move, heading south toward the coast, probably hoping that the wintry desolation will warm a little, that the sun will emerge from the unyielding gloom, making the crops grow again and permitting life to continue into the next generation.

The adaptation by director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall hews close to McCarthy’s sparse, grim prose. Viggo Mortensen stars as the father, his chaffed face half-covered by a scraggly beard, leading his boy by the hand through a world whose color had dimmed to gray. Some of the most horrific scenes from the novel are omitted, but the film retains many glimpses of bloody horror. In one poignant scene, the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) clutches his stuffed animal to his dirty parka while gently touching one of the bodies they discover hanging from nooses in a barn along the road. Apparently, the people who once lived there killed themselves rather than endure the gnawing hunger and cold and the savagery of a society that failed.

Mortensen plays the father as a man forced to borrow against resources of resiliency and stamina he never knew he possessed. If he and his boy were the last people on Earth, the search for such essentials as food and shoes amid a ruined human landscape of rust and rot would be an easier matter. But they must compete with other frightened refugees, pushing shopping carts of tattered belongings down the road and contend with heavily armed gangs determined to survive the chaos by any means, including murder and cannibalism.

As the father insists to his son, they are among “the good guys,” yet the slope between good and evil is as slippery with gray ash as the dead apocalyptic terrain they must cross. The father is faced with hard choices. Should they share their scarce food or allow an old man (Robert Duvall) to starve? Should they rob a desperate man who had just robbed them and leave him naked to die in the chill and fog?

As he tells his boy, there are “not many good guys left,” adding that he must “keep carrying the fire, the fire inside you.” The survival of all that is good about humanity provides the single ray of hope in The Road. It’s one of the year’s best films and probably won’t be opening in a Milwaukee theater.

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