Director of Cinematography, Javier Aguirresatobe, establishes immense tableaux wide shots in John Hillcoat’s The Road, a film depicting the state of life in a post-apocalyptic world. One such shot features the protagonists, simply named Man and Boy (played by Viggo Mortensen and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee), scavenging throughout the wreckage for clothing and food. Another depicts a wasted metropolitan city and its harbor. Visuals like this come and go, all without appeal or significance. Oh, what a grim and morbid world we live in, and what a dull way to portray it. Yes, under Hillcoat’s direction, the words of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel (upon which this film is based) lose all their irony, magnitude and — most of all — their emotion.
The film almost feels like a poor man’s No Country for Old Men, as both are set against vast and hostile landscapes. But where No Country is vibrant and spontaneous, The Road is constantly overburdened with the lead-up to its pre-determined conclusion. The Road feels constantly dead, not in the sense that it is terrible filmmaking (“amateurish” might be a better term), but in the sense that it doesn’t represent life. The film joins the ranks of the other prestigious Oscar bait films (like Cold Mountain or Cinderella Man) that fixate themselves on simply evolving their story from point A to point B without much humanity.
Despite his growth as an actor, Mortensen is left doing his usual shtick here, only to be completely out-performed by Robert Duvall, who, in just ten minutes of screen time, better demonstrates the toll of suffering. But what’s so frustrating about The Road is the fact that these characters’ nastiness is consistently being depicted as good. Mortensen’s character is the least likable because he’s consistently hypocritical. For instance, he teaches his son about the importance of life (the mother played not-to-convincingly by Charlize Theron previously committed suicide), yet, scenes later, he is seen willing to not only kill himself but his son in times of desperate need. For a film that is essentially about survival, Man lacks the requisite spirit, faith and will to overcome his situation.
If No Country is about the tough struggle to succeed when facing one’s final breaths, The Road is about the long and ponderous wait for the Grim Reaper to inevitably knock at one’s door. Sure, The Road pretends to be heart-wrenching at times, especially when the father narrates his pride for his son’s courage in the days of old, and in his final moments with his wife. But deep down, it’s a story about settling for the worst. The Road is downright pessimistic whereas No Country, weird as it is, glistens in a soft optimism by contrast.