Coming off the successful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, yet another adaptation of one of his novels is made with 2009’s The Road. In many ways, the two works are similar examinations of humanity, yet the way the films approach the subject and the ultimate conclusions they make about it are two totally polar ending points. And personally, I think The Road is the film that pulls it off better.
This is in part due to the simplicity of its tale. The Father (Viggo Mortensen) and his Son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) head towards the coast through the wasteland that was once America. Their trek is a constant struggle for survival as the two scrounge for food and basic necessities. Along the way, The Father struggles with protecting his son from all harm while also protecting his innocence and fragility.
Therefore, the film becomes an exploration of human nature. When taken to the absolute low, how far will humanity go to survive? Can noble men still exist in such a world, or will they be picked off by the men who refuse to live by morals? The Father does his best to be a moral man in an amoral world, but he constantly struggles with the fear and basic instincts that tempt him to give in to the easier route.
It’s his evolution as a character that carries most of the film. In order to get at these basic ideas about humanity, these characters are stripped of almost any personality. In any other film, this would be lazy writing, but what the film is getting at demands the characters to be as simple and elemental as possible. One character that we only see in flashbacks that I thought would have been a valuable addition to the journey is The Mother (Charlize Theron). In flashback, we see an interesting arc in her character as well that serves as a fascinating contrast to The Father.
It’s also in these flashbacks that we get a glimpse of vibrancy and color in the film. On the whole, this is a film with ashen grey forests and dreary skies. The relentless atmosphere provides a constant sense of oppression that weighs heavy upon the characters. Even though the visual style is ugly, the camerawork is fantastic and does a great job of providing a sense of place, atmosphere and scale to the piece that enhances the story.
The film also goes the smart route of post-apocalyptic films by not explaining how the world got into this state. It could have been nuclear war or perhaps simply a great fire that ravaged uncontrollably throughout the land. Everything about the state of the world is left to be inferred by the audience and in many ways it’s not even important how the world got the way it did, all that matters is how the characters react to the events they are placed in.
And it’s the way the film explores morality and the character arcs that explore the question make it a better film than No Country for Old Men in my opinion. If man was simply an animal (as some men are in this film) then these questions would be meaningless. But there’s more to man than his basic instincts and the way the film gets into these issues and places The Father in interesting situations makes the film fascinating and thought provoking.
And I think a lot of this comes out of the simplicity of the film. Unlike most films, The Road isn’t trying to tell you a story or provide compelling or identifiable characters. Instead, it places a very basic and simple man in an impossible world and provides a thoughtful and insightful look into humanity. Sure, that’s not as fun or entertaining as something like No Country for Old Men and there are a lot of moments in The Road that make you cringe. But here the filmmaking is far more honest in its portrayal and more insightful in its conclusions. Some may not like that route, but it’s what makes The Road such a fascinating and thoughtful film.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing