Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains,
I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways,
I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests,
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans,
I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.
"Lost in a Haunted Wood"
A boy and his father are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. A cataclysm has happened, whether by the hand of Man or God it is uncertain and does not matter. The sky shows no sunlight, only the gray of dust clouds and smoke. The animals are dead. The forests are dying, crisping into fire or crumbling from dead roots. There is no food. No gas. No electricity. Buildings are crumbling or have been turned into abbatoirs for cannibalism. The boy and the father fear for there is evil anywhere for in the fight to survive, there is no moral contingent in the death-struggle to survive.
For the father (Viggo Mortensen), the worries are "food, the cold and our shoes." The fears are the roving packs of humans who'll survive by any means necessary, theft, killing, consumption. Some have taken to hacking off their own limbs to stave off starvation. His wife (Charlize Theron) is long dead, having walked out into the night, which is tantamount to committing suicide. Now the father and boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who looks eerily like Theron) are heading South to the ocean because to stay in one place means eventual attack. They have miraculously survived so far, and they must repeat the miracle day after day until the miracles give out. Among the effects the father carries are a gun with two bullets, one for each of them. And one of the life lessons taught is how to shoot oneself in the most efficient manner. "The child is my warrant," says the father in narration. "If he is not the Word of God, then God never spoke."
Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" was a best-seller and eventually won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. John Hillcoat's film of it doesn't shirk from the doomsday scenario or amoral atrocities and has managed to find bleak blast areas of Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Oregon and Washington* to depict the nightmare world, post-disaster. It's somewhat ironic to see this film of people trying to pick up the pieces when booming next door at the multi-plex is "2012" showing a scenario that might have created the situation as a fun-ride. "The Road" is anything but rollicking, but is a great work of film that cuts right to the bone of what it means to be a human being, a father, and responsible. We've seen such scenarios before in movies, but they've all been kinetic desert chases or the threats are vampires, mutants and zombies—"others"—and not beings who've only been tipped by circumstance to preying on their own kind. This is no "pop"-nihilism for the sake of entertainment, with its "safe" zones, and goals of legended peace. It's a dog-eat-dog world and all the dogs are gone. Instead of pyrotechnics and thrill rides, we're left with survival—plodding, exhausting, fearful...on the edge of life and humanity.
It's tough stuff—"fight or flight" stuff with an edge of "Deliverance" maliciousness, but treated with an unsentimental "It is what it is" approach. So, be warned that its an ordeal (not as much of one as I was prepared for, but know that it is unpleasant), but is bursting with excellent work on all fronts. Viggo Mortenson's film-length performance is epic—a good man tossed into impossible situations, weakening bit by bit in the struggle, the panic in his eyes rarely allowed to escape to the rest of his face. Smit-McPhee gives one of the most clear-eyed kid performances put to screen, and their work is punctuated by tough, unsentimental cameos by Theron (one steel-edged performance, this), Guy Pearce, and Robert Duvall (in a short but masterful, almost lyrical performance).
It is not too much to say that "The Road" does its extraordinary source proud, while making its own path to greatness.
"The Road" is a Full-Price Ticket.
Oh, what'll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what'll you do now, my darling young one?
I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin',
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',
But I'll know my song well before I start singin',
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.
* Early on, I recognized paths that I'd walked on in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in the shadow of Mount St. Helens, and as soon as the hairs on the back of my neck relaxed, a shot of the timber-clogged Spirit Lake appeared. From what I've read, the FX crew used shots of the NW skies at the time of the Mt. St. Helens eruption to loom over the horizons—the whole movie has the looming density of a lousy NW winter day.