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The Road a bleak, challenging stunner

by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

The Road Now Playing

How do you solve a problem like The Road, the oft-delayed John Hillcoat helmed film based on Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel? Rumor has it the powers that be couldn't decide when to unleash the dark apocalyptic tale on an American public weary from economic uncertainty and perpetual wars.

The big guns decided Thanksgiving weekend 2009 would be the perfect release date. So, if you're still stuffed with food and gratitude after last week, drop by the local cineplex and take in this bleak stunner; it will take the shine off your holiday weekend.

The Road is the tale of a father's determined journey to survive an unnamed catastrophe long enough to deliver his son to safety while dodging miscreant cannibals and fending off starvation in the decimated landscape. Have a nice day!

The Road is a tough proposition all around. Figuring out a release date was probably easier than putting together a marketing plan. How do you convince folks to shell out hard-earned dollars to witness the end of civilization? To exacerbate the situation, this isn't cartoony crap like 2012; this is the real deal and you'll leave the theater pondering things you don't want to.

We don't like to think about it, but our existence is tenuous. Political stability is little more than a socially prudent illusion that could implode quite easily. The planet gets smaller and smaller as six billion (and counting) humans vie for basic resources like food and water. And the Earth is just a transient speck in a solar system among countless other solar systems in an ever-expanding universe. Do you see why we don't like to think about it?

The Road is a good, if challenging, film. The relationship between the man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is central to the narrative. As the fabric of society falls apart, a more elemental drive takes over. This isn't just about getting the kid to a safe place; this is about the survival of the species. The boy watches as his father loses his humanity. Morality and civility become situational and even detrimental.

This is heady stuff. This is why I like The Road. It is unwavering in its aims. It does not let the viewer off easily. It stays with you long after you leave the theater.

Mortensen is terrific as the unnamed man trying to protect his preadolescent progeny. He is an actor that conveys a page of inner dialogue with little more than his eyes. The subtlety of his desperation is devastating.

Robert Duval reminds us why he should always be counted a cinematic treasure. He owns the screen in the small but pivotal role of the old man.

Michael K. Williams, best known for his portrayal of Queer Robin Hood Omar Little in HBO's The Wire, turns in an excellent performance as the thief.

Unfortunately, Smit-McPhee's performance doesn't measure up to these heavyweights. The youngster gets lost under the power of the veterans. He struggles to find a way to portray his connection to his father and to make us believe he's a little horrified by what he witnesses. On one hand, he is a young actor working against an accent (Kodi is Australian) and a complex character in an impossible setting. On the other hand, young actors have triumphed in similar roles (think of Anna Paquin in The Piano).

It is fun to see the scenes shot in Astoria, Oregon and around Mt. St. Helens and the cinematography is beautiful, even when capturing images of utter annihilation.

The Road is not without hope. Hillcoat sprinkles subtle notes of rebirth throughout the film. A few blades of grass or a beetle are rife with meaning in this landscape.

That brings me to the ending. I can't say much about it, because giving even the slightest hint of why I didn't like it would give it away. Suffice to say, I did not like the ending. For those who have read the novel, it takes that ending one step further - one step too far, in my opinion.

Maybe Thanksgiving was the perfect day to release The Road after all. This flick will certainly make you consider all the little things, and big ones, you should be thankful for. And, who knows? This could have been the last Thanksgiving ever.

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