Something I’ve been paying closer attention to in recent days are color palettes, lighting and sound design. It is easy to overlook these things. I recently watched Zack Snyder’s 300, which still holds up rather well, and Man of Steel, which I’ve been a fan of since its release. Both films highlight Snyder’s knack for the visual flair of filmmaking, though his reputation has taken a major hit of late with train wrecks Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. His use of color palettes in 300 is especially noticeable.
These elements should be recognized and appreciated because they usually play a strong role in establishing tone and texture. Such traits tell a lot about the atmospherics of a story as well as where that story is likely to go.
This brings us to 2009’s The Road, a film adaptation of the Pulitizer-prize winning novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. If you haven’t read the novel, you really should. It’s classic literature. Sidenote: I plan to do The Road for my next installment of Book vs. Film, so look for that in a month or two when I finish rereading the work that predicated this.
Some of the film was shot in my hometown of Pittsburgh on the turnpike outside of the city and along Presque Isle beach, an old stomping ground of my childhood. Viggo Mortensen, a near perfect cast for our man, stars our central character. If you haven’t read any interviews with charming Viggo, you really should. He’s standoffish and avoids the spotlight at all costs, the polar opposite of what you would expect of someone who’s made a life in front of a camera. His seclusion is rather noticeable but his dedication to his craft is still highly regarded. Any true diehard Lord of the Rings fanatic is well-known to how immersed Viggo got in his role of Aragorn. Someone who takes method acting with the utmost seriousness will always have my respect in some form and Viggo certainly has earned mine. He feels right for this role, just on paper.
Anyway, The Road is a post-apocalyptic tale about a father and son going through a starved planet while fighting for survival themselves, all while the man tries to both teach the boy the deepest meanings of life itself and the tactics and tools he needs to survive once his old man is gone. It is a very barren concept and it takes the hands of a true craftsmen to make a tale so sordid and uninviting feel so contagious to a reader and listener.
To put things on the table, the boy in this tale, to those who are not picking up the least subtle of subtle hints, is a metaphor for childhood innocence. In the novel, McCarthy does not give his characters names, instead referring to them simply as “the man” and “the boy”. The boy’s youthfulness and ignorance to not only his current predicament but to the nature of human beings is especially precarious for the man, who is fighting inner demons, the harsh physical burden and dragging along literally the only reason he can chalk up to worth living for. In this scenario, we are literally watching a man carry a boy, his own dark thoughts, his doubt, his environment, his hunger, his heartache…dude’s carrying the world on his shoulders right now and for what? If it wasn’t such great writing, the book would be called Masochism: A Story of Hating Yourself (Think I’m gonna use that title for my autobiography).
This type of emotional desolation brings a reprieve of intellectual fulfillment, wringing lines of true dialogue gold in McCarthy’s penmanship. Sadly, those nuggets got lost in the gold rush of this film’s production. While a modicum of valuable utterances may appear during its near two-hour run time, the picture lacks the same cognitive prowess of its original maker. John Hillcoat may have directed Lawless, a western/gangster ode I really need to revisit sooner rather than later, but that came after this direction. He’s out of his league here and it’s all too easy to see before you look at the finer details of the film. It’s clear he put a high priority on the three things I mentioned at the beginning of this review: color palettes, lighting and sound design (the film actually got critical praise for its cinematography). It’s a film with a continuous overcast that’s begging to be cast in black and white, though Hillcoat never goes all the way there, instead using a paintboard of different shades of grey to compound the seeming meaninglessness of our characters’ actions and inactions.
It is more a dire canvas than a traverse through the bare bones of human companionship. It’s a work that characterizes its setting with disturbing normalcy and a lack of apathy, the mindset one would expect when such horror is so repeatedly seen. It is certainly visually competent.
The Road is not about the road itself though, the road to freedom or some secret clearing where the world hasn’t keeled over. The Road is about the people who transgressed the path, about the humanity or lack thereof illustrated in its pages and in its steps. It’s about the tragedy that humankind has seen fall upon it, the diminution of their resolve and the endless slaughter of the concept of hope. This is a dissection of the human brain and heart as much as it is an autopsy of the psyche of an animal pushed to the brink of extinction. These are bricks of substance we’re talking about here. These are the types of discussion, the styles of theme you would expect in an adaptation of McCarthy’s work, but you will find yourself thoroughly starved by the end of it.
The backbone of this film, the meaty morsels shall we call them, simply are not there. Again, the presentation is well-done and I give the crew credit, but the foreground, the thing we came to see, is nearly transparent. It is not because the background is that enticing. It is embracing but not to the point that this deserved an Academy Award nomination or the most strident rally. No, the writing desk simply shortchanged us. The same depths that I hoped to see on-screen are simply not approached with the most ardent of efforts.
Imagine being a photographer and having a career-defining image laid in front of you. You take the picture and capture a large part of the glory in the back half, showcasing the texture I mentioned at the beginning, but in the pursuit of that panorama, that snow globe effect, of being seized by this little pocket of nature, you forgot about the central subject in your photo. What you captured is out of focus.
That feels like the most appropriate metaphor for this viewing experience. It’s a product that delivers on one of its founding principles, visual storytelling, but dramatically fails in shipping the essential contents of the story alongside it.
Once again, if you’re new to my blog, I’ve always ranked movies on a scale of 0-100 (I don’t know why, I just always have). Here’s the grading scale.
80-89 It was a pretty good movie and definitely one worth seeing, but it doesn’t quite scratch my top ten percentile. (The Conjuring, Sinister, Olympus Has Fallen, The Cable Guy, The Cabin in the Woods)
50-59 This movie isn’t intolerable but it’s not blowing my mind either. I’m trying really hard to get some sort of enjoyment out of this. (Tommy Boy, Death Note, True Memoirs of an International Assassin, The Great Wall, Robin Hood)
40-49 This movie is just mediocre. It’s not doing anything other than the bare minimal, so morbidly boring that sometimes I’m actually angry I watched this. (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Power Rangers, Underworld: Evolution, Batman & Robin, Bloodsport)
30-39 Definitely worse than mediocre, the 30′s ironically define the 1930′s, full of depression, lack of accomplishments, poverty and just so dumb. (Most Likely to Die, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Crow: City of Angels, Centurion, Planet of the Apes)
0-19 Watching this movie resulted in one or more of the following: seizure, loss of brain cells, falling asleep/unconsciousness, feel you wasted your time/day, accomplished nothing for you, left the movie knowing less about it then you did going into it, constantly asking yourself why you came to see this movie, or near-death experience. In short, staring at a wall was just as entertaining as watching this movie. This movie deserved a sticker or a label that said, “WARNING: EXTREME AMOUNT OF SUCKAGE.” (The Coed and the Zombie Stoner, The Forbidden Dimensions, Cyborg, Outcast, Sabotage)
My score for The Road: 62.
When it comes to the genre of post-apocalyptic dramas, you could do worse than The Road but you could also do much, much better. Viggo keeps this boat afloat, dedicating a capable effort to the cause whilst brief appearances from Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall feel like yet another headwind Viggo has to plow his way through. By the end of it, Viggo looks like a man beaten to a pulp physically but with plenty of emotional and cerebral punch left in him if only he was given the material to work with. I can’t help feeling like Viggo was waiting for the art to come and I couldn’t help feeling the same way.