By Sandra Kraisirideja
Movies during the Great Depression offered patrons a chance to escape the outside world with spectacular musicals, screwball comedies and a Little Tramp who always got by. In contrast, movies during the Great Recession seem to offer escape with stories that show a post-apocalyptic vision of the future that is even worse than the reality that exists today.
Unemployment is rampant, foreclosures continue and the retail outlook doesn’t look bright going into the holiday season. Compared to what the characters in “The Road” must endure–starvation and possible capture by cannibals–the problems of today seem bearable.
“The Road,” based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name and directed by Australian John Hillcoat, is a bleak, unforgiving look at what happens after the planet is destroyed by an unnamed cataclysmic event. The movie, just like the story, is a haunting account of a father and son who embark on a journey toward the coast and warmer weather.
McCarthy’s stripped down tale doesn’t bother with names or background stories. Main characters are simply known as The Man, Wife, The Boy, Old Man, etc. Surprisingly, the nameless characters do not distract from the story or the audiences ability to connect with them. A deeper layer of hopelessness surrounds the story as it picks up years after a catastrophe that kills almost all life on the planet. The main characters have done all they can to make it this far and as each day passes death looks more and more promising.
Playwright Joe Penhall expanded the Wife character for the movie, but otherwise stayed very true to McCarthy’s story for his screenplay adaptation. To capture the dead landscape of “The Road,” Hillcoat shot in location in Oregon, Pennsylvania and Louisiana. Plant life and animals are nonexistent and the sky is forever cloudy and rainy.
Viggo Mortensen stars as The Man, with Kodi Smit-McPhee as The Boy and Charlize Theron as Wife (who is seen only in flashbacks). As the story unfolds the audience learns The Man and The Boy are headed south and toward the coast to increase their chances of survival. The Boy was born after the event so he knows nothing of the world before.
The journey south is perilous and the pair are constantly in fear for their lives. They battle starvation, the elements and possible capture by cannibals–the real evil in the story. It’s reasonable to expect difficulty in surviving a post-apocalyptic world where all plant life and animals have been killed off, but McCarthy’s decision to add cannibalism as another threat makes the story darker and more horrifying. Even worse, the cannibals are just men and women who are trying to survive. They have lost sight of their humanity and all reasonableness has left them. Many times The Man and The Boy are on the verge of killing themselves rather than face capture.
The end of “The Road” doesn’t necessarily offer hope, but possibility, which leaves little for audiences to cling to. More importantly, “The Road” provides perspective at a time when Americans are looking for ways to redefine who they are and what matters most.