There's been a lot of whispering lately about THE ROAD, the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's award-winning novel, moving to 2009 and out of the 2008 Oscar race. Does it have anything to do with the quality of the movie? Luckily a long-time JoBlo reader named "Dave" was lucky enough to catch a recent test screening in New York City. He was kind enough to write up a little review and pass it along for your reading pleasure. Let's see what's up this ROAD...(wow that was a bad pun).
A couple of days ago I saw THE ROAD at a screening, where the audience was told that it was near completion but there was still work to go. There were indeed some sound issues and a few images were either blurry or discolored, but otherwise I think we saw what is intended. (Maybe not though, as I read news that it's getting pushed back?) What we saw was a very unusual film, one that's quite dark and without a central plot... But this movie is about tone and mood and knowing the main characters, and on those levels it certainly works and could be an award contender at the end of the year. (If it gets released, of course.)
The premise of THE ROAD is simple: The world is a barren, ashy wasteland due to some unknown event (we're never told it explicitly, but it's pretty obvious that WWIII has gone down and most of the Earth has been destroyed by it). A father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) walk endlessly down a road toward the coast of Florida, hoping they'll find ANYTHING that doesn't resemble the hell they currently live in... They're not alone however, and once in a while they encounter gangs of degenerate scavengers bent on capturing and eating any living thing they find. Suffice to say, life ain't a bowl of cherries for our protagonists...
THE ROAD is a combination of meditative art-house epic (think Terrence Malick) and creepy horror movie. Somber, thoughtful moments of father-son bonding are mixed with distressing images that are the stuff of nightmares... There's one really eerie sequence where the father and son wander into a seemingly abandoned house only to discover that a group of malnourished people are being kept in the basement, presumably being used as "food" for the house's owners - who soon come home. The sequence is so disturbing that every scene after it has a hint of suspense, making the experience even more unnerving. There are very few scenes aren't drenched in foreboding and sadness.
As depressing as it is, the performances by Mortensen and Smit-McPhee keep THE ROAD from being a total downer. Whenever father and son happen upon a lucky circumstance (as when they find a hidden cache of supplies) you feel just as fortunate, and it's always uplifting when they manage to smile, even a little. Combined they're on-screen about 99% of the time, so their intense performances give the movie life even when its filled with death. Viggo in particular is excellent, displaying a frightened, vulnerable side we've rarely seen, but also the stoic hero we're now used to.
All other actors in the movie show up in glorified cameos, but they're all effective. Charlize Theron plays the man's long-gone wife in dream sequences, and we see her as a sunny beauty and also as a suicidal shell of herself; she's terrific, as usual. Guy Pearce is solid as a battle-scarred survivor (with a really bad set of teeth) and an almost unrecognizable Robert Duvall has a great few minutes as a weary traveler our heroes stumble upon.
I'm not sure of the commercial prospects for this film. I don't see it being as big of a success as, say, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (author Cormac McCarthy wrote both novels), as the material is probably too grim for most people, even those drawn to the top-shelf cast. However, like I said, there will almost certainly be an Award push for Viggo and perhaps director John Hillcoat, so that could raise its profile a bit.
This hasn't been a great year for movies (in my opinion), so THE ROAD easily makes it into my top 5 thus far... In the end, it's not quite the masterpiece it intends to be, and I don't know if I can say I "enjoyed" it - but it's unique and engaging and sometimes downright chilling. Definitely not a typical night at the movies, and that's always something to appreciate. I'll give it a 7/10