A father and son live moment by sickly moment in the now here, but listlessly wander the damaged path to no where. Director John Hillcoat’s apocalyptical vision is as ephemeral as the ashes of human beings drifting like snowflakes upon the thick poisonous air, and as solid as a vacant house ravaged by time, a skeletal ode to the passing of a species.
Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, Hillcoat delays the narrative tension with the use of superficial flashbacks that intrude upon the urgency of the situational drama. Though Hillcoat doesn’t sink to the lower depths of trite exposition to explain the world-changing disaster, he unfortunately feels the need to explain the father’s emotional world, to peer inside his head to relive the past and use voice-over to propel the journey: both are disjointed functions that become condescending and unnecessary. The power of the story is in the never-ending drudgery of survival, in drawing each thick breath because of an inherent will to survive while retaining their humanity. Instead of utilizing long takes with minimal editing to take us along on this heart wrenching travelogue, the editing is fractured until the film plays like small vignettes pieced together without care.
The soundtrack is horribly melodramatic and typical, with swelling strings for sad moments and pounding percussion for action sequences. The look of the film is interesting, with a washed out color palette that contrasts with the vibrant colors of memory that relies too much on CGI and becomes too digital: the computer enhancement is a detriment. Hillcoat fails to use the eerie murk, the absence of all light in this dark night of the world, to full advantage, magnifying sounds into monstrous imaginings. When the “bad guys” wander into the story, they look like recycled antagonists from a Mad Max flick.
Viggo Mortensen’s face is a roadmap of destruction, wearing the weary determination of a dying father like a badge of honor upon his stoic countenance. Pain is the currency of this new world order, and Viggo is less effective as he speaks; Hillcoat has failed to imbue the characters with a subtle mimicry, conveying emotion without dialogue because words are limitations. The child actor Kodi Smit-McPhee is neither good nor bad as the son, he merely is; that’s really all that is required for the role. This could have been constructed as a silent film and been much more effective. The main fault that cracks the narrative foundation is that it isn’t depressing enough; it only carries the illusion of tragedy because the audience isn’t given enough time to care. Michael Haneke’s TIME OF THE WOLF is a much better post-apocryphal allegory.
Overall, THE ROAD is a film that has lost its path, detouring into the realm of the conventional and clichéd. Final Grade: (C)