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End of The Road

Viggo Mortensen, left, and Kodi Smit-McPhee star in The Road.

The director and star of The Road discuss the bright side of the apocalypse.

What can you do with a book like The Road? In a way, Cormac McCarthy’s novel, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and feted by Oprah Winfrey (and wouldn’t you hate to know which brought more readers to it?), seems perfect for the movies: The post-apocalyptic setting gives the special effects boys lots to play with, and the lines of uninflected dialogue read like a screenplay. All you have to do is chop out all of that free-form description and detail.

But of course that’s what makes the book what it is. Take away its literary quality and you’re left with a story that is unbearably bleak. I got through about 80 percent of it and stopped, partly because I knew a film was coming but just as much because I was afraid to encounter an ending which could only be more painful than where the story had already gone.

The Road follows an unnamed man and his young son (played in the film by Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McPhee), as they travel what’s left of America. That political designation is now meaningless: An unknown and unseen event has killed most of the population (human, animal and vegetable), rendering the land unusable. The sky is so blotted with ash that day is barely different from night.

In the years since the disaster (just before the boy’s birth), most of the survivors have starved to death or chosen suicide over hopelessness and the fear of falling victim to cannibals. Starting apparently from somewhere in the Midwest, the man takes the boy on the road to the ocean. Why? Because they have to point themselves somewhere.

Horrifying as it may be, The Road isn’t a horror story. It is a story of love, and if you want to find horror in that then book and the movie will engage you. “The child is my warrant,” the man says, “and if he is not the word of god then god never spoke.”

McCarthy’s voice is compelling and powerful, and if it is also on occasion indulgent you can’t hold it against him. But the book is grinding, an unrelenting record of bare, dull survival punctuated by things worst than death. I put down the book because the pain of the story was no longer worth the pleasure of its prose.

The movie is faithful to the book, but no more than it needs to be and less so than it might have been. Of the two most unbearable sequences, one has been omitted and one has been toned down. This may have been intentional, or it may have been a result of editing: Originally scheduled for release in 2008, The Road was rumored to have been recut in order to make it palatable for audiences.

If you’ve seen any of director John Hillcoat’s other films—the western The Proposition, or the ultra grim Australian prison drama Ghosts of the Civil Dead, you know that he’s not averse to depicting brutalilty. It’s a trait he shares with his regular collaborator Nick Cave, who scored The Road, and we can only hope that the two never decide to make a film of Cage’s album Murder Ballads.

The film also pares down the book’s endless wanderings to concentrate on the encounters with other survivors, broken up with flashbacks to the man’s wife (Charlize Theron, who looks uncannily like the actor playing her son). That was also a necessary decision—only Andrei Tarkovsky might have made a movie that retained the painful crawl of the book’s prose—but it fundamentally changes it as well.

Looking like a grimmer version of Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, Viggo Mortensen is probably the only marquee-value actor who could (or would) have played this part, and he walks a thin line between portraying desperation and conveying it. He is suited to the production, which mostly takes advantage of authentically distressed landscapes (in Pennsylvania, New Orleans, and near Mount St. Helens): It occasionally has a ghastly beauty, but never invites you to enjoy it in the way that, say, 2012 lets you marvel at the wholesale destruction of civilization.

Whether it’s an experience you want to subject yourself to during the holidays, I leave to you to decide.

At the recent Toronto International Film Festival, director John Hillcoat and actor Viggo Mortensen appeared at a press conference to discuss The Road. Some of their comments:

AV: John, how were you changed as a result of making The Road?

Hillcoat: The book had a profound impact on me, and working in those different locations made it very poignant. Going to places like post-Katrina and Mt. St. Helens. It’s really about how valuable life is and what’s special about it. I have an eight-year-old boy, and it’s made me think a hell of a lot about where we’re going and to cherish what we take for granted.

AV: Your film The Proposition also dealt with extreme environments and characters under extreme conflict. Is that a theme you’re drawn to?

Hillcoat: The apocalypse is just a canvas in order to see how people behave. Extreme environments tend to do that. It brings out the best and the worst. Cormac McCarthy said, “The book is about human goodness.” The father-and-son relationship is heightened and made extra-special the greater the odds are brought to the fore.

When I was referencing other films, I was referencing father-and-son relationships. And I was actually quite surprised that the vast majority of movies out there, in terms of fathers and sons, they tend to be tyrannical fathers or absent fathers. So to see such a moving love story I think made this material extra-special. And, of course, with Cormac, it’s very personal, because this is also a story for him and his own son.

AV: Viggo, do you think The Road is a picture of what might be ahead of us?

Mortensen: Yeah, it is. But that’s not really what I was concerned with. My job in this movie was to keep this boy alive and to keep myself alive. He keeps me alive. It’s not an ideological movie or a political movie. People can read into it whatever they want. I know and the audience knows that if I’m gone, the boy has nothing: no food, no roof, it’s cold, and there are people looking to eat him. It’s about as bad as you can get.

AV: Is the shot of an office building burning a reference to the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

Hillcoat: Well, I certainly think it has to do with the decade of the Bush administration. In the last decade, there’s certainly been a lot of fear out there, and 9/11 was just part of that. There’s fear about the environment, fear about the economy, fear about lots of things. And the problem is fear shuts off a lot of doors and can create ignorance.

For me this setting in the film was just meant to highlight what happens when fear takes over. And in a way, all generations, the older we get, every single generation gets a bit more fearful, a bit more stubborn.

AV: John, can you talk about the soundtrack to The Road and your collaboration with the film’s composers, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis?

Hillcoat: When I met Nick Cave in Melbourne [in the early 1980s], we just had an instant bond. He loved movies, I loved music. That collaboration, when you find someone you can spark off of and you enjoy that, it’s like gold. Nick’s done every single score [for my movies]. He works in an unusual way: He and Warren Ellis, they just looked at the film. They never do the more precise, clinical click tracks, scene-by-scene analysis. They just go out into another room and improvise in response to what they’ve seen and then we work that into the film.

Watch the trailer for The Road

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