One for The Road

At last, The Road, the new film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, has made its long and winding way to Maine.  I caught a matinee performance today, and, somewhat eerily given the film’s subject matter, I was the only one in the audience for this screening of The Road. The bleak mid-winter in Maine can have a post-apocalyptic feel at times anyway, but, ten minutes or so into the film when no one else had appeared to join me in the audience, well, it was a little creepy.

So, the end of the world is big at the box office these days, from Zombieland to 2012 to the forthcoming Book of Eli. “The end is near” is the message coming from Hollywood, or, at least, Hollywood seems to be perfectly willing to tap into the national mood of anxiety and fear.

I haven’t read McCarthy’s novel, but I’m assuming that the film follows it fairly closely.  There are, of course, specifically cinematic touches. At one point, the Man (Viggo Mortensen) comments in voiceover that “every day is more gray than the day before,” and this is a very gray film. In part, that’s because we’re in a world covered in ashes, but even in those sections of the film that do not show everything under a layer of ash, we’re still in a world devoid of color. The grayness is particularly effective when contrasted with surprising splashes of color (crayons in the Boy’s hand, the bright label on a can of fruit).

The basic plot of the film is that our two main characters, a man and a boy (otherwise not named other than as “Papa” and “son” when speaking to one another), are on their way toward the ocean, and roughly heading south in search of other “good guys” like themselves. Through flashbacks, we learn that the boy was born shortly after whatever unnamed cataclysm destroyed civilization as we know it. His mother, weary of trying to survive in the post-apocalyptic world, kills herself  by walking out alone into a snowstorm (another eerie reminder of Maine in winter). How much time exactly has passed between that moment (when the family still seemed to be living in their home) and the present of the film isn’t clear, but our protagonists are wandering through a blasted landscape, trying to survive, avoid roving gangs of cannibalistic humans, and foraging for food and shelter on their way to the promised land (or to the hoped-for better place at the end of the road).

As a fan of classic horror film director James Whale, I tend to see references to Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein everywhere, and as much as I try to suppress the temptation to compare every film I see to Frankenstein, the visual allusions in The Road seem so clear that I can’t ignore them. Although shot in color, the grayness of The Road makes it seem at times a black and white film. The early shots in the film of a rolling landscape of trees shorn of their branches is astonishingly evocative of a scene in Bride where the Creature, pursued by angry mob, is fleeing through a similar blasted landscape. Several off-kilter camera frames, a shot of the man and boy pushing their shopping cart, hunched over, against a backdrop of fire and smoke, all are evocative of the Whale films, not to mention the moment when a group of men carrying torches hunt for them in the woods. Similarly, multiple Frankenstein scenes with tilted gravestones or askew crosses are echoed early in the film by similarly askew telephone and electrical poles (which likewise suggest crosses). The Man’s sometimes shambling gait (he seems to have an injured knee) and those moments when he’s reduced by exertion or illness to a kind of wordless grunting and heavy breathing also recall the physical form and muteness of the Creature.

The film is also interesting as a quasi-western. Viggo Mortensen is the last good man on the frontier, the cowboy down to his last two bullets.  He’s even shot with an arrow at one point. However, the film is careful to erase any clear connection to a particular region (or even to any specific American places). We see a nearly destroyed amusement park that could be Coney Island, but when was Coney ever spell with two “N’s” (the partially-destroyed sign spells out “Conn   Is” )?  That sense of being in a world that is all regions and no regions is indicated by the shooting locations, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Oregon. In this post-apocalyptic world, the frontier is everywhere.

For the most part, the film is harrowing, and it conveys the emotional bond of father and son effectively. However, there were a few goofy moments as well, some of which come about through recognizing well-known actors (good lord, is that Robert Duvall beneath all that hair?), which can bring you out of the film world pretty quickly. And, this particular post-apocalyptic world is partially and somewhat oddly populated with former members of the cast of the HBO series Deadwood.

The first to pop up is Garret Dillahunt, who played several roles in Deadwood (Jack McCall, the man who shot Wild Bill Hickock, among them).  He also played the imprisoned man who Seth Bullock sees is properly hanged rather than taken by vigilantes in the opening episode of the series. Dillahunt in The Road survives about as long as the imprisoned man in the Deadwood opening, shot in the head by Viggo in one of the earliest scenes in the film. Dillahunt plays a member of a cannibal gang, which is exactly the sort of role he seems to play a lot these days—the kind of guy who ends up dead and you’re not sorry to see him killed.

This is also the only film I’ve ever seen that lists someone in the credits for “Prosthetic Teeth.”  And I hope the credited artist had a team of dental assistants, because if he was making all those nasty-looking teeth himself, he was certainly overworked. And, after a while, the more I started noticing the prosthetic teeth, the more that particular element of the film seemed to be a bit overdone. Granted, in a postapocalyptic society where human culture has devolved into wandering gangs of cannibals, there’s probably not going to be a whole lot of flossing or dental hygiene in general going on, but, given that the cataclysmic event couldn’t have taken place more than ten years into the film’s past (given the age of the boy), how is it possible that decades of orthodontia could go so wrong so quickly? Rotting and decaying teeth I can understand, but what has happened to cause so many mouths full of crooked teeth?

Still, despite the bid to win the Oscar for prosthetic teeth, the film is certainly affecting.  [WARNING to those who have yet to read the book or see the film: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW] And, certainly, Viggo’s final death scene is a tear-jerker sure and true. Stephen King has written that the scene is so affecting that he could hear the projectionist sobbing [I can’t say the same, as I’m not even sure there was a projectionist in that empty theater–I was left to sob alone].

I don’t know how closely the film’s ending follows the book, but I was bit surprised by the unlikely coincidence that ends the film. The boy leaves his father’s body behind and starts walking. He meets another man,  and, it turns out, all this time, this man and his entire family have been following the boy and the man, and only now do they reveal themselves and invite the boy to join them. Not only is there a mom (or Motherly Woman as listed in the credits), but also a brother and sister (this for our lonely boy who has longed for companions), and, to top it all off, the family even has a dog! As we know from Harlan Ellison’s classic post-apocalyptic story “A Boy and His Dog,” a boy loves his dog, and that the boy of The Road not only finds a family but a dog to call his own was a bit much for me.

And all this seems fantastic enough given the bleakness of all that came before, but even more amazingly, the Motherly Woman is Molly Parker, another Deadwood alum, the lovely laudanum-addicted Alma Garrett. I’m a big fan of Molly Parker, from early work on the Canadian sit-com Twitch City to her work in independent film to Deadwood. And, I’ve got to say, any end of the world scenario that involves hooking up with Molly Parker, well, that’s a helluva silver lining for the apocalyptic cloud!

So, I’m not sure what others think about the end. Even aside from the thrilling presence of Molly Parker, the ending seemed abruptly optimistic and unlikely. Why couldn’t they have joined forces with the man and the boy earlier on?  I think I would have preferred to see the boy going on,  still carrying the fire inside him, but alone, at least for the foreseeable future. Such an ending to me would seem more in keeping with the rest of the film.

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4 Responses to “One for The Road”

  1. jb Says:

    Nice write up. On a minor note, Dillahunt played McCall in the first season and Francis Wolcott, Hearst’s deviant geologist in the second. He did not play the dude Bullock hangs. That actor’s name is James Parks.

  2. Michael K. Johnson Says:

    Thanks for the correction–and this provides me with a good excuse to go back and watch season one of Deadwood again, as clearly I don’t remember it as well as I thought I did!

  3. Neil Campbell Says:

    Watched The Road this afternoon in a post-apocalyptic Derby, UK (or, at least, rain swept). After this film, the world, actually seems a whole lot brighter, whatever the weather. I have read the novel – which I thought magnificent – and the film is a pretty good ‘version’ (for that is waht it is). Mccarthy’s novel is more severe, more Gothic (the cannibal foodstore Hoouse scene, for example). Anyway, I’m thinking about it as a Western … did my eyes see a map showing the Pacific Coast (or was I wrong?) Are they heading ‘South’ but to the west coast? The film has Viggo Mortensen in flashback as a ‘cowboy’ (with check shirt and horse the first time we see him) – PERHAPS. The gun (as Michael says) adds to this – plus the echoes of McCarthy’s own work – the ‘kid’ in Blood Meridian journeying across a brutal landscape of the west and the boys of the Trilogy.
    The film – as Michael suggests – has a kind of intertextual quality re-connecting to Deadwood – AND also to John Hillcoat’s wonderful Australian Western The Proposition whose ‘feel’ and brutality is mirrored here (as well as Guy Pearce’s brief cameo as the ‘saving’ man at the end) – a filmic space where landscape works absolutely with character to portray a naturalist nightmare.

    Still thinking …

  4. Neil Campbell Says:

    William Carlos Williams understood The Road:
    ‘History, history! We fools, what do we know or care? History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery … the ghost of the land moves in the blood, moves the blood’ (In the American Grain).

    … and the film’s deep iconographic history is exquisite too – its images create the spectrality of a ghostly landscape: the abandoned TARGET; the last Coke in America; Del Monte Fruit Chunks; Cheetos; the Amusement Park; the twisted Freeway; two bullets in the revolver. As Derrida puts it, ‘like all inheritors, we are in mourning’ (SoM, 67) as we watch the film slide away.
    — ‘Certainly, the cinema is inhabited increasingly by spectres’ (196, Laura Mulvey, Death x24 a Second (2006).

    — The film resonates with the ‘palpable absence and sense of loss’ of promise contained in what Zeese Papanikolas has called ‘American Silence’: ‘a kind of longing, a sense of something lost, lost perhaps even at the moment of gaining it, and possibly irretrievable’ (2007: 19). The dreams of the small farms we see throughout the film; of the broken cities; of families scattered (and eaten): A cold world ‘more poignant, and the wound fresher’ since one is conscious always of the ‘utopian possibility that we just missed’ (ZP, 21, 22) – created via the memories of Papa (Mortensen) – as much as tries desperately to erase and block them out.


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