Video Vault: The Road

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The Road

2009 – John Hillcoat

Rated R: 111 minutes

Vault Rating: 9

Cormac McCarthy lives in this community of artists and thinkers out west.  They’re the big brains in our world today, luminaries and philosophers and scientists in a community that allows them the freedom to think even the most preposterous hypotheses out loud.

McCarthy, whose writing seems steeped in ideas of “the west” has been wrestling with a world Stephen King has been thinking about too.  The world King refers to in his “Gunslinger” series.  The world that has “moved on” even while a select few “carry the fire” or “remember the face of their father.”  It is a world shattered, in its death throes, yet there is a flicker of honor left in a world gone to hell.

Many people in our society today feel this nameless disconnect between life and meaning.  It is, I think, what has been eating at us.  McCarthy is going there in his writing.

In “No Country for Old Men,” McCarthy studied an old law man – played with cool candor by the aging like fine wine Tommy Lee Jones – who can scarcely take in the measure of crime today.  In his modern western tale, Jones, an old school sheriff, grapples with an amoral killer who represents a passing of old ways, a dying of honor, meaning, and a descent into chaos.

“The Road” seems to have taken No Country to an extreme end.  We view a world that literally is in shambles.  We’ve no idea what has taken place.  Could a comet have struck?  Perhaps nuclear annihilation?  Could the rapture have come?  There is no backstory.  The landscape, shot in Pennsylvania (in a REAL boon to the tourism industry), Oregon and at Mt. St. Helens, is blasted clean.  Grey skies seem to rain only ash on the dark, cold, colorless landscape.  Nothing grows.  There is no food.  There are only scavengers who pick the bones of what is left of a collapsed society.

Amid this bleak hardship there is a struggle to survive.  That is the story.  A “Man” and a “Boy” walk south along a road.  They are a father and a son, but they remain nameless as if to provide only shadowplay characters stripped of anything but essential meaning.  They are dwarfed by the holocaust around them as if tiny characters in a grand but horrifying japanese landscape.

The man ( Viggo Mortenson) has a gun but only one bullet left, the use of which is a constant source of tension.  He coughs hard like a miner with advanced black lung and it is plain he is barely a step ahead of the reaper.  Yet he lives to protect his vulnerable son.

 The boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is innocent.  The world he walks he has never known differently so he is naive and needs protection.  Yet it is the boy’s ability to extend trust and kindness that is hopeful and dangerous.

“We’re the good guys, right?” he asks his father.

“We’re the good guys.”

“We’re carrying the fire, right?” he asks affirmation like a prayer.

“We’re carrying the fire.”

“Because we don’t eat people, right?”

“We don’t eat people,” reaffirms the father.

The world revealed in the film expertly delivers the savagery of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, which, I shall remind you all, is the single most terrifying book I’ve ever read.  The terror is simple.  What if that tiny flame of hope goes out?  What are we left with then?

Great art must show us something of ourselves and director John Hillcoat has taken his audience by the hair and held your nose to a grimy mirror.  Stripping away all artifice and reducing Man to his essentials, bereft of anything superfluous, we are forced to consider what matters.  What is real.  And it scares the shit out of us when you put it that way.

We  in the Vault love a good apocalypse-type film.  We’ve raved on about the genre many, many times.  But none of the films we’ve considered belong in the same league with “The Road.”

It is a film that few have heard about, but you can still get to see it out in the theaters if you’re lucky.  Perhaps it’ll show in second runs.  If you see it, don’t miss your chance.  This is a great, grim masterpiece.

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