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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Road (Less Traveled)

Given my recent criticism of The Book of Eli, it seems important to mention that someone else had already taken my advice. In contrast to Eli's cartoonishness, Cormac McCarthy's The Road has been adapted for the screen in tones both subtle and logical. It's thematic goals are permeated with balance and ambiguity instead of abject moralism and posing. It's rare and refreshing to see Hollywood take that path. The Road is also the best punch in the gut that I've endured since watching Grave of the Fireflies.

Based on his previous film The Proposition, John Hillcoat works in my favorite colors: sad and beautiful. And he has painted a quiet masterpiece in The Road. Unlike The Book of Eli, there are no superheroics in this film. But there is a significant meditation on everyday heroism... on the hellbent dedication of a father who has only one thing to live for (his son) and the compassion exhibited by his raison d'etre. The two characters, father and boy, are contrasted throughout the film in its efforts to strip away everything unimportant about man and find what lives at his core.

An example of this soul-spelunking: they've made cannibalism far more terrifying than the Book of Eli by showing just how awful starvation is. Viggo Mortensen strips down in one scene to show off a holocaust physique reminiscent of Christian Bale's body in The Machinist. Only when we can genuinely imagine the horror of starvation does it awaken the possibility of cannibalism. And only then do we see the dehumanization of man at his worst. Where The Book of Eli makes eating people seem like a disturbing fetish, The Road views it as a watershed of what men will do to survive, and casts grim light on the price it commands.

This type of inquiry into the human spirit is exactly what post-apocalyptic tales should do. So I tip my cap to both Cormac McCarthy, who writes devastatingly bleak but fascinating stories, and to John Hillcoat who birthed McCarthy's vision into a stark spectacle.


Update: I'm still hoping to finish all of the interesting films of 2009 before the Oscars, but time is running out, and I seem to keep adding a film or two to the list every time I cross one off. >:(



At 2/10/2010 08:45:00 PM, Anonymous robynlee said...

Thanks for this review--I was groping around in a cold void for my own response after both reading the book and seeing the film a year later; all I knew was that they were impressively the same. Now I get how they elicited exactly the response they aimed for.


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