The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Road

Read enough of an author's work, and I've always thought you get a decent look at their outlook on life.  More specific than that, look at the endings to books/novels/short stories, and often enough you get a window into their heads.  I've read four of Cormac McCarthy's novels and realize it's impossible to peg this guy down.  In 'No Country for Old Men' and 'Blood Meridian,' the endings are cynical, incredibly dark and pessimistic.  McCarthy is not one to write a happy ending, but for 'All the Pretty Horse' and 'The Road' there are endings that at least offer hope.

Most recently, The Road was made into a feature length movie of the same name in 2009.  Granted, it was in theaters for about 90 minutes -- if at all on Chicago's Southside -- so I didn't get a chance to see it, but the movie hit DVD last week.  The book is a critical favorite, and McCarthy shows his ability to spin a simplistic story that can still be profound (maybe because of its simplicity).  When I found out the novel was being made into a movie, I was suspicious at first.  This post-apocalyptic novel is not full of action or dialogue, and to tell you the truth, not much happens at all.  But somehow, just like the source novel, the film is worthwhile almost in spite of itself at times

Director John Hillcoat has made a movie that creates a tangible, very real look at what a post-apocalyptic world would look and feel like.  He filmed all over the U.S. including Pennsylvania and Oregon and drops the viewer into this world.  The only color we ever see is in a few quick flashbacks to a pre-apocalypse world while everything else is shot in shades of gray and brown.  Nothing specific is ever mentioned as to what happened to the world, but plants are dying, animals are seemingly extinct, and the sky is always covered in dark, gloomy clouds.  As one character points out, the world is dying, and we are too.  Uplifting message, huh?

In this dreary God-forsaken world, a man (Viggo Mortensen) travels along the vacant roads with his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) just trying to survive from day-to-day.  Food and water are scarce, and they trudge along looking for anything that might help them survive.  It's been years since something happened to the world and almost destroyed civilization, leaving very few people alive.  Those that are left? Some are like the father and son doing their best to survive.  Others have joined together into roving gangs ready and willing to kill for any reason.  The father and son travel south, hoping to eventually reach the coast and hopefully find a better place.  But in this world, there's no guarantees of anything.

McCarthy's novel is simple and to the point in creating this sparsely-occupied world.  Translating that to a 2-hour movie is/was a daunting task if you ask me because whole stretches in the novel are just descriptions of the things they find and places they walk through.  That's really my only issue with the movie.  To call it leisurely paced is a huge understatement.  I realize the movie's trying to tell us and show us how these two people survive in this world, but it drags in a big way.

The movie is at its best when dealing with the trials and tribulations father and son must make their way through.  Very few people are still alive, but when they do find them, it's every man for himself.  It is kill or be killed, and look out for the individual first.  In this vast, desolate world, someone trying to kill you could be anywhere waiting for their chance.  When these moments do come along, they're the type of scenes that can send chills up and down your back like no thriller/horror movie ever could.  These scenes show how alone this father and son really are.  No one's there to help them.  They're on their own.  Maybe that's the purpose of the slower scenes -- to lull you into a comfort zone -- and in that sense, the deliberate pacing works.

Viggo Mortensen, besides having basically the coolest names ever, is one of the best actors around, and this is a performance that lets him show off his talent.  His sole goal in life is not for himself to survive, but to help his son survive and keep going.  This is a man who's survived for years -- and looks it too -- who is driven by that one desire and goal to help his son.  13-year old Smit-McPhee is impressive as well in his first big-budget movie.  This is a boy who doesn't know any other existence, but still has a humanity and a belief in morality as they cross this ravaged world.  Other parts include Charlize Theron (only in flashback) as Viggo's wife, Robert Duvall as Ely, a 90-year old nearly blind man they meet on the trail, and Guy Pearce and Molly Parker as a man and woman traveling south too.

As for McCarthy's ending, the movie sticks pretty close to what the novel presented.  And as depressing as it could be taken, it offers some semblance of hope.  All these apocalyptic, dystopian stories almost have to end with a remnant surviving, one last pocket of humanity that offers some sort of hope for the future -- however bleak that future may be.  The moral of the story is this, I can't get a read on McCarthy at all, and maybe that's a good thing.  His novels aren't always easy to read, and the movie translations can be difficult at times, but in the end they're worth it.

The Road <----trailer (2009): ***/****

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