The Best Movie You Never Saw: The Road

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Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at John Hillcoat’s THE ROAD, starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee.


A father (Mortensen) and son (Smit-McPhee) struggle to survive in a bleak post-apocalyptic America, heading South in the hopes of finding warmer weather and better means to stay alive. Fighting against the harsh elements, starvation, and cannibalistic gangs, the pair toil to stay alive by staying together, looking for hope at every turn.


Based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, the script was written by Joe Penhall with director John Hillcoat (THE PROPOSITION, LAWLESS) at the helm. The film stars Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Garret Dillahunt.


Author Cormac McCarthy is no stranger to dark territory. The celebrated author of such works as Blood Meridian, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, and his original script for THE COUNSELOR has treaded into some dark corners in his tales of men at their best and worst. In 2006 he published THE ROAD, which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, leading producer Nick Wechsler to acquire the rights. After watching John Hillcoat’s THE PROPOSITION, Wechsler pursued the director to helm THE ROAD with Joe Penhall writing the script.

Viggo Mortensen was cast as “Man” with young Kodi Smit-McPhee joining as “Boy” and Charlize Theron as “Woman.” Filming took place almost exclusively in Pennsylvania to capitalize on its many abandoned or decrepit locations, which brought the post-apocalyptic setting to life without relying on CGI to do so. Taking advantage of natural settings and bad weather, Hillcoat sought to achieve the most realistic and traumatized setting for the film that he could. For his part, Mortensen lost roughly 30 pounds by starving himself and would often sleep in his clothes, maintaining a bum-like appearance that even got him kicked out of various places. Smit-McPhee won the role after sending in an audition tape recreating a scene from the book that involved his father teaching him how to kill himself (a scene which also takes place in the final film), beating out hundreds of other kids vying for the role.

"I said to the director, 'You know, if we don't find a genius kid to do this part, we can only do so much. The movie can only reach a certain level. It doesn't matter how well it's done, how well designed, or how hard I work or am able to be honest and emotional. We're limited.' It really has to work, that relationship, and we're lucky we found him because he was able to give as good as he got." - Viggo Mortensen

The film went through a series of release dates shifts before finally settling on December 18, 2009 (with a limited release on November 25th), reportedly because it was better suited as a fall release, but likely to make an awards season bid as well. Although well received (it sits at 75 percent fresh on RT) the film was ultimately eclipsed by wider releases (including the juggernaut known as AVATAR) and mostly misunderstood by general moviegoers as to what kind of film it actually was.  With a production budget of $20 million it ended up grossing only $8 million domestically, with an additional $19 million in foreign grosses, making it a mostly lackluster performer at the B.O. The film has found some new life on video and streaming, however, as more have sought it out either as a result of word of mouth or having just discovered the book. 

“It was a real gift having this material, because it works on so many levels. I’ve rarely come across something that has moved me so deeply. How do you deal with that? Luckily, I got it before it was published. But there were several points of concern. There was the legacy of McCarthy–his writing is so amazing. How do you create that world on this kind of budget? Above everything was how the hell do you get a kid to pull it off? So all that gave me pause for thought. But I thought anything that moves me like this I’ve got to embrace. Also, I’ve got an eight-year-old boy, and that certainly added another wallop to it for me. I tried not to get overwhelmed. McCarthy helped a great deal. A huge weight came off my shoulders when, during our first conversation in pre-production, he said “A book’s a book, a film’s a film. I’ve done my thing, you do yours.” He never asked to see a script, and we never volunteered. He was there to answer questions.” – John Hillcoat (filmmaker magazine, 2009)


“That movie was garbage,” someone once told me about THE ROAD, just after we’d both seen it. I was shocked and kind of speechless, but part of me understood why they would say that. Having read the book (or rather, devoured it in a single flight) many years before and then seen the movie, I certainly didn’t agree with that sentiment. In fact, I was of the opposite feeling. I had been moved to tears when reading it and watching it, so why would someone else feel that way? Did we see the same film?

The problem, it seemed, was that THE ROAD is a near impossible film to categorize, let alone market. Director John Hillcoat wasn’t happy with the initial trailer released for the film and not much changed with the second one, either. They displayed a post-apocalyptic action thriller that starred the heroic Viggo Mortenson, waving around a gun, looking desperate and aggressive, while trying to protect his son from seemingly evil apocalyptic gangs. And, really, the trailer is pretty good; it’s just not for the movie that was actually made. (Check out the 1st trailer below):

Many have called THE ROAD an important film and one you shouldn’t miss. I agree with that sentiment, but I also think that it’s a film you need to understand a bit before you step into it. It is by no means an action film. It’s not MAD MAX or The Walking Dead. Not by a long shot. It doesn’t feature a major sci-fi element or menacing villain leader to square off against. So, what makes it so good? Simplicity. THE ROAD is a quiet, meditative, bleak, harrowing, beautiful and poetic story about survival and the love we try to protect in the face of a world gone to hell. In the end, it’s simply about the love of a father and son.

McCarthy’s novel is delivered in beautiful prose that takes you into the plight of a man and his son struggling simply to survive in a world without electricity, food, or any type of society. How the world came to be this way is inconsequential to the story and neither McCarthy nor Hillcoat attempt to explain what led to the world gone black. There is no news, no TV, no radio; just survival. And that is what Mortensen’s “Man” and Smit-McPhee’s “Boy” must do. It’s all they can do.

"In that sense, it does not matter so much how or why the world looks the way it does. What matters is what these people, having practically nothing but each other and their beating hearts, do and say, how they behave with each other and with others they encounter. How do they treat each other? What do they, and we, learn from this journey?” – Viggo Mortensen (Wired, 2009)

Hillcoat impressed with his first film THE PROPOSITION, a moody western starring Guy Pearce, and he lends that style to THE ROAD just as well. Shooting wide, bleak-looking canvases, we see the devastation that surrounds Man and Boy, even if we don’t know why it is that way. And, we don’t need to. It’s near beautiful in its ugliness and immerses you in a world that you’d never hope to see in your lifetime. There is no life. No animals, no blue skies, no sunshine; just an ash-covered world that seems to be slowly dying.

In many ways, THE ROAD is a lot like a Terrence Malick film, albeit with a more structured narrative. Mortensen provides a sparse voice over that speaks very much like reading his thoughts, but they aren’t incoherent ramblings, rather a guide to his mindset. His “Man” character isn’t a badass wanderer out to save the world; he’s simply a man trying to protect the only thing he has left in the world; his son. And, he’ll do anything he must to do that, compromising his morality and his beliefs to do so if he must. He is scared, he is brave, and he is lost in the world that’s left and Mortensen brings that to life in every ounce of his performance. It’s what you expect from one of the most underrated actors working today and more proof that he’s absolutely one of the best in his craft.

"I read it the same day that I read the script because I thought, 'This is a really good script, a tough story but beautiful, and strangely kind of uplifting at the end.' I went through a lot of things reading the script. I couldn't believe how much my emotion was condensed into it, and visually what it could be, you know? And so I ran out to the book store and I was happy to see that this was a very faithful adaptation of the book." – Viggo Mortensen (movies.about.com, 2009)

Likewise, Smit-McPhee emulates the wonder of being a child, but also the fear of being one in a world gone mad. His performance is raw and strikingly real, easily one of the best child actor roles in the last few decades. They talk about “carrying the fire” a metaphor for survival and for being one of the “good guys” as they traverse the empty vessels of the world that is littered with the corpses of people, cities, and vehicles.  Their biggest threat, next to starvation and robbery, is that of roaming cannibals who have turned to eating each other in the absence of any other living flesh. But, while a threat, they are hardly the antagonists in the film.

The villain of THE ROAD is the loss of humanity and compassion, which are what Mortensen’s “Man” fights to preserve. At every turn he is tested and he must measure his responses against not only the protection of his son, but also what he teaches him. Meeting a blind man on the road (a guest appearance from Robert Duvall), the Boy wants to give him food, while the Man resists. After confronting a robber (a guest appearance from Michael K. Williams), the boy pleads for mercy, while the Man insists on none. Ultimately, the Boy is the Man’s salvation and vice versa.

"I think Cormac has a brilliant scientific clarity, as well as being a great poet in his perception of where we fit in the world. He reminds us that there are huge, greater forces than us. [The story is] a reminder that you're a grain of sand on an endless beach — and I think that that's a healthy thing to be reminded of." – John Hillcoat (NPR, 2009)

Pre-Furiosa Charlize Theron stars (in flashback only) as Woman, who is the wife/mother of the two. Theron is no stranger to giving her all and this is a small, yet powerful performance. Her actions in the film help to define Mortensen’s Man as he attempts to carry the fire for both her and the Boy. Like all the performances in the film, Theron’s is quiet, reserved, and then powerfully jolting. She ultimately provides an anchor to the world they once knew.

What makes THE ROAD a powerful film is the simple relationship of Mortensen’s Man and Smit-McPhee’s Boy. Their interactions are so genuine and real, tapping into both the simple and complex nature of a father-son relationship, especially under such hardened conditions. You feel their desperation, their pain, their compassion, and their will to survive. It’s difficult not to inject yourself into their world and question how you would handle such circumstances. Of course, that’s kind of the point, and it’s the kind of thing that only the best films do; make you question yourself and stay with you for a long time, possibly forever.

THE ROAD is a hard film to watch and I’m so very glad that it is. Revisiting it for this column once again had me in tears at the end. It is absolutely heartbreaking and absolutely beautiful all at once and it’s a work of art that comments on who we are and what we’re capable of as human beings. It’s so rare that a film speaks to you on this level and for me it’s what elevates film well beyond the realm of entertainment and proves why it’s one of the most important tools we have as members of the human race to express who we are.  It’s a tough journey, but this is definitely THE ROAD you want to be on.

"For me, all drama is based on conflict. So it’s a natural extension of that. And one thing I love about Cormac McCarthy is the types of pressure he puts onto people. You see the best and the worst in people, you really see what humanity is made of, and I think that resonates in some way. Or I hope it does. They’re stories where from our own comfort zone, we can all pontificate about what sort of people we are, and what we’d do. But it’s only until the real pressure is on in our own lives. I think this is true of everyone, that we’re often surprised how we act under pressure, and it brings out aspects of who we really are. As Cormac said with The Road, for him, it’s a story about human goodness. And it’s a love story that’s unlike many love stories, and very fresh and original in that way.”  – John Hillcoat (The A.V. Club, 2009)


There are many standout scenes in THE ROAD, but I feel like putting one of the bigger ones here kind of ruins the experience and also serves to misrepresent what it’s really about Instead, I think it best to give you a glimpse at the quiet, meditative state that the film is in for most of its running time. It’s a much better setup for what the film is, especially after the misleading quality of the trailer, and allows you to settle in for what you’re in for.


THE ROAD is currently available on Blu-Ray/DVD. Get it HERE!

Source: JoBlo.com



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