“The Road” proves that you can make an apocalyptic movie without zombies. The film is an unrelenting yet landmark work of science-fiction because, for one, the viewer is so caught up in the moment, in surviving with the two lead characters, that it hard to tell it’s even sci-fi. That said, this is the most dramatically rich (and oppressive) films of its kind and no short-cuts are taken. The film is true to the story and the characters. Sometimes so much so that it’s hard to handle.
John Hillcoat (who made the equally bleak Western called “The Proposition”–a film I also love but am afraid to watch again) has fashioned this story based, of course, on the great Cormac McCarthy novel, with a very loose plot structure (the family is moving south for reasons unstated in a world destroyed from unknown reasons) but in a lot of ways the less we know the more we are able to feel the frustration of the characters. And that’s what’s it’s all about! When it comes to the central father and son characters the film is focused and that’s where it counts. With a strikingly haunting Great Depression era face, Viggo Mortensen is brilliant in his struggle to remain “good” when such moral qualifiers no longer exist. Yet he persists. He is not perfect and he is not profound, he just.. is and I admire the modesty and minimalism in Mortensen’s grounded performance. We may not know much in the way of context (the flashbacks to his past life are unnecessary) but we are able to connect with the spirit of the character who does not even have a name; we understand what he is doing and why he is doing it even if we, along with him, can’t articulate it. Sharing every moment of screen time, the man’s son, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, doesn’t ruin the movie and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay to a child actor.
The film’s production design is perfect. The muted and drab earth tones capture this dying world. And I don’t just use the term “dying world” as a metaphor. The world is shutting down. The temperature is dropping and life is on its way out. Hillcoat and his team capture exactly that. When the two characters finally reach the “blue ocean,” they take one look at it and the father says “I’m sorry it’s not blue.” There you go! Trees are skeletal and often keel over on screen and in a particularly effective design choice, do so off screen too as we often hear creeks and thuds in the background which startle us at first but become a fact of life soon after. Vegetation is withered and brown. Earthquakes reign down upon man like an angry God is shaking the world loose. Animals are nonexistent (and they’re lucky for it). The only thing left is what remains of humanity, full of scavengers, thiefs, blind men and cannibals (yes, cannibals). Mad Max had it easy, this is humanity. If it’s any consolation there is hope, but in typical McCarthy fashion it comes as such a great price that there might as well not be. But there is.
“The Road” is one of the best post-man movies I’ve ever seen. I love that, after having a kid himself, McCarthy’s way of celebrating fatherhood is THIS devastating world. Still, I consider myself a student of apocalyptic fiction so my point of entry into “The Road” is through the genre more than the author and accolades. On that basis its a beautifully realized movie that, refreshingly, lacks irony, sentimentality and Will Smith.
- What’s Good: “Education” features three perfectly fine performances. That’s the only thing that sets this film apart.
- What’s Not: Coming of age + private school + 60s = seen it before. Bland writing and uninspired directing. Bah humbug.
As the fifth highest rated film of the year (Metacritic) with 7 perfect scores and countless other fawning cheer-a-thons one would think this film would have more to offer. It does not. This is a very simple yet also a very assuming film. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cute little movie at its heart but that’s all it is. So while what they say is true (it is nice) and what happens comes awards time might be deserved (Carey Mulligan is guaranteed a nomination) but “An Education” is just the kind of shallow feel good story to win over the hearts of America’s old and tired who want to experience this story without being challenged in any sort of way.
Ms. Mulligan, the young lead, is winning to be sure but not very subtle in her emotional pallet. She’s smart, she’s nice, she’s a romantic, she’s a, well, Mary Sue. I blame the writing more than the performance. Mulligan’s Jenny is an overachieving student who experiences love (or lurve) for the first time but the story she finds herself in does not rise to her level of academic excellence. Ah, but there’s a twist (but not really): set in an all girls private school (insert naughty thought here) during the roaring-or-rocking-or-whatever-60s, the education in question is not one of acquiring knowledge but experience in “the school of life.” Wow, groundbreaking. It’s not like we’ve ever seen a plot chronicling a youngins’ personal awakening set against the backdrop of social upheaval (YOU SEE, BECAUSE THE TWO PARALLEL EACH OTHER) before, oh no, never, I can’t even wrap my brain around this groundbreaking concept. Despite such trite sentiments, this gifted young girl with her gifted young dimples has the ability to melt away even my icy cynicism–she’s like the Nermal of teenage girls in that respect. Mulligan’s Jenny is an intellectual shut-in who is a willing prisoner of her demanding father and silent mother. Her bubble is popped (along with a few other things) upon the arrival of an older man into her life in act one. From Latin to lipstick, Jenny suddenly finds herself swept away by a shady rich man and her family is all too willing to allow Jenny to go down this path because the man is rich and powerful. Or is he? Will she stay with the dubious cad or pursuit a life of the mind at Oxford University??? You know the answer. What I’ve just said is all there is in this picture. The plot is so linear that watching it play out provides almost no measure of surprise or insight. It goes where it must and where it has before in countless stories about young naive love.
The film might as well have been written by a machine which, looking at who actually wrote it, author Nick Hornby, that’s half true because he hasn’t written anything true to his style or particularly original or not corny since High Fidelity. The catch in terms of how one judges this kind of film is that the lead is so winning that the flaws inherit in the by-the numbers drama are blurred to a point of forgiveness. Just as effective in an altogether different way is the jail bait scouting suitor played by Peter Sarsgaard (awesome actor, and doing a pretty good Brit accent as far as I can tell) who walks the line between charming and creepy so well that I would say the success of the film hinges upon his ability to make us like him despite our Spidey-senses tell us that some thing not quite right is going on here. While Mulligan will sponge up all the accolades (her cute-as-a-button newness is impossible to resist–could this be the second coming of Sally Field? ooooooh I hope so!) the real show stealer is the great and gifted and usually underrated Alfred Molina who plays her her father, a hysterical and peevish oaf that represents old England with their old values. The only problem is that he’s more lovable than than everybody else (made even more so because this is Doc Ock and the Mexican from “Maverick” we’re talking bout). Even here though, and all across the board, that’s all there is to it.
In the end gives me no pleasure to be hard on such a harmless and likable film. But it gives me even less pleasure to watch something that plays it safe, has no fresh ideas and still gets awarded for its mediocrity.