LFF 2009: The Road

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road / Icon

The film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s devastating 2006 novel is a haunting tale of survival in a post-apocalyptic world featuring two outstanding lead performances.

The Road depicts the journey of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they struggle to stay alive in an America which has descended into savagery after an unspecified environmental and social collapse.

Part of the story’s raw power is the absence of any explanation as to why the world is collapsing, which shifts the focus on to the central relationship and the day to day struggle to survive.

Given that the story involves suicide, cannibalism and humans acting like savages you have to give credit to director John Hillcoat (who made the wonderfully gritty Australian western The Proposition in 2005) and screenwriter Joe Penhall (author of the acclaimed play Blue/Orange) for properly translating the horrors and emotions of the novel into a film.

Central to why it works is the focus on the day to day struggle to survive and the resistance of  horror movie clichés which have stunk up the cinema in recent years with the plethora of zombie movies this decade and the likes of Saw and Hostel which contain plenty of gore but little genuine emotions.

Key to making this film so affecting are the two  central performances which convey the love, anguish and desperation of their appalling situation and their deep love for one another. Mortensen as the unnamed father is (as usual) terrific but Smit-McPhee is more than his match, especially as the film progresses and he gradually becomes the moral heart of the piece.

The visual look is particularly striking: cinematographer Javier Aguirresa opts for a brownish palette to depict the harsh, ash-ridden environment. The art direction and production design also makes very clever use of rural US locations to create a chilling post-apocalyptic world.

Audiences unfamiliar with the novel may be taken aback by how bleak the story is and the film certainly doesn’t pull its punches: roaming gangs of cannibals, potential suicide and houses filled with half alive bodies are just some aspects that will disturb, although the most notorious scene from the book is omitted.

But the oppressive tone is there for a reason as it is part of the book’s power. It adds to the tension of the journey but also makes the stakes for the father and son all the more real. Unlike horror films where victims are meaningless pawns, the characters here are rounded people you desperately care about.

Another thing to look out for is the interesting supporting cast, which is filled with excellent performances –  most of which are extended cameos – from Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce. The soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis  strikes an appropriately mournful tone with a notable piano motif reminiscent of Arvo Paart.

The Road was supposed to come out in the US last year and there has been some chatter that it was a troubled production the US distributors The Weinstein Company were nervous about. Given that the novel was one of the most acclaimed of the decade, no doubt they felt they had a good shot at awards glory.

When it premiered in Venice, it divided opinion but it really is an admirable film on many levels. The filmmakers have preserved the uncompromising nature of the McCarthy’s source material but also crafted a deeply moving drama of love in a time of death. In McCarthy’s words they have ‘carried the fire’.

The Road screened today at the London Film Festival and opens in the US on November 25th and the UK on January 8th 2010