Black and White movie night: The Road (2009)

Date(s) - 28/02/2016
20:00 - 23:30

Joe's Garage


The roadSunday February 28th 2016, Black and White movie night: The Road, directed by John Hillcoat, 2009. In English. Door opens at 8pm, film begin at 9pm. Free admission.

In the past, some of it not too distant, people the world over have thought during times of plague and famine that they were living in the last days of our planet. For most of us today, such visions are of a future where a nuclear holocaust, global warming or some other man-created calamity threaten the imminent end of life on earth. In his masterpiece, The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman brought together both experiences by projecting the nuclear angst of the 1950s (a major cinematic subject at the time) on to a Sweden of the Middle Ages visited by the black death. Earlier, the 1936 film based on HG Wells’s Things To Come foresaw a world war in 1940 that would return Britain to a dark age of tribes battling for depleted resources.

Such movies are now highly fashionable and the heavyweight film version ofCormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, first published in 2006 (and his third to be filmed after All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men) comes in the wake of three relatively lightweight movies covering similar territory released over the past 10 weeks. In the Canadian movie, Pontypool, an apocalyptic outbreak of cannibalism, seemingly carried by language itself, is reported from a small-town radio station in the basement of a deconsecrated church. The premise of Zombieland, an exercise in pitiless black humour, is that most of the population of America has been wiped out by a form of mad cow disease. Co-directed in the States by two Spanish film-makers, Carriers is a low-budget horror flick in which four young Americans drive towards the Gulf of Mexico across a country ravaged by a deadly virus that has no known cure.

McCarthy’s novel, adapted by the British playwright Joe Penhall and directed by the Australian-based John Hillcoat, offers no explanation of how the world was reduced to a dark, desolate, inhospitable, uncivilised place, most of its flora and fauna destroyed and its few human survivors wandering alone or travelling with small bands of cannibalistic marauders. Food and drinkable water are scarce and viciously fought over. Snow and rain are incessant. Everything is covered by a choking ash. The sky is constantly overcast. The actual place is not named and though we infer that it’s America, we feel it’s more the crossroads where Vladimir and Estragon meet by their leafless tree or the blasted heath on which Lear and his fellow outcasts gather.

McCarthy calls his two central characters simply “the man” (Viggo Mortensen) and “the boy” (Kodi Smit-McPhee), both lower case, a father and his son aged seven or eight, conceived before and born shortly after the unidentified catastrophe. The father has dreams of his wife (Charlize Theron) from which he awakes with sudden pain, for thinking of the past is almost unendurable. We learn that she deserted them, going out into the cold to die partly in the manner of Captain Oates, partly because she could not face the future.

The movie was shot on location in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Florida and Louisiana (using some areas shattered by hurricane Katrina) and Hillcoat, his designers and his versatile Spanish cinematographer, Javier Aguirresarobe, have created a world both abstract and gut-wrenchingly real that exactly matches McCarthy’s grim terrain. And it is accompanied by a plangent, minimalist score by Hillcoat’s regular collaborator Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

Against this background, the journeying man and boy, pushing their supermarket trolley with their pathetic belongings southwards to the sea and supposed salvation, are both real, breathing characters and archetypal figures from an allegorical journey like those in Bunyan’sPilgrim’s Progress or Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Both Mortensen and Smit-McPhee act with their eyes, which sparkle in the surrounding gloom.

Each encounter they have – with an old man, a thief, a gang of cannibals, a deadly archer – seems like a threatening accident. Each place they visit, including the man’s childhood home, has an ominous atmosphere. But these people and places always have an exemplary, emblematic function, explaining the ethical and philosophical implications of the pilgrimage and deepening the relationship between the father and son.

Initially, the man, so solicitous and unselfish with regard to the boy, seems almost saintly. But gradually we realise that it is he who is being morally crippled by the experience and that the boy, who has known no other world, carries within himself a natural decency, an untarnished human concern for his fellow man. It is this, rather than a somewhat contrived ending, that makes the film not merely bearable, but affirmative and life-enhancing.

The movie touches gracefully on religion in an unsanctimonious manner in the man’s references to God, the campfire discussions between the father and the old man (played by Robert Duvall) who briefly joins them, giving his name as the Old Testament prophet Eli, and in a crucial scene set in a shattered church. There are also allusions to the western novels associated with McCarthy: the man has raised the boy to see people as “good guys” and “bad guys”, though there’s a clear irony in this. There’s also what appears to be a reference to that great novel of isolation,Robinson Crusoe, in a key sequence where the man swims out to a wrecked ship to find what might be salvaged and returns to discover that a sad, bereft black man (Man Friday, we assume) has made off with all their possessions.

The Road is a very fine film that inevitably falls somewhat short of the novel. McCarthy is often spoken of as a follower of William Faulkner, but in this case he seems closer to another American writer raised on the King James Bible, Ernest Hemingway. The short, declarative sentences, some only a few words long and without verbs, have a powerful austerity. The man’s thoughts, the pared dialogue and the authorial narrative voice flow seamlessly in a manner no visual style could match.

Film night at Joe’s Garage, cozy cinema! Doors open at 8pm, film begins at 9pm, free entrance. You want to play a movie, let us know: joe [at] squat [dot] net