Written by Nguyen Manh Quoc Trung
Bleak. Such is the world that The Road (2009) depicts. So bleak, like darkness has swallowed it all, and there is nothing left to ponder about but our own portentous existence. The characters are bleak, the actions are bleak, and sceneries are bleak, and the settings being the bleakest of them all. Rarely do you see a post-apocalypse movie this desolate and dreary; these films usually depict a civilization in ruins, sure, but most of them end on a hopeful note. In The Road, there is not even a civilization. There is only a never-ending winter, where cold and icy rain pours heavily from the dark gray sky, where everything is covered with the reddish-brown color of rust and death, and where tree branches, long devoid of any sign of life, dominate the empty landscape. There is no hope, or at least hope is extremely hard to be found. I know that the movie tries to stay as true as it could with the depressing tone set by its source novel of the same name, written by Cormac McCarthy, but this is way beyond conventional. When sitting side by side with the movie, my own uncertain future in work, in love, and in life suddenly looks like Disneyland.
The Road is a straightforward story. The movie takes the viewers across a desolate world, where a global cataclysm has destroyed almost all life on Earth, reducing it to a mere wasteland, and those who survived are either very desperate or very dangerous. And in that world, a pair of father and son, portrayed by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, respectively, embarks on a journey to the coast, where they believe there will be a warmer and more hospitable environment to live in. They push a shopping cart full of necessities, struggling to make ends meet in a barren America, and through flashbacks and narrations, the father tells us about who they are, how they came to be, how the world was once beautiful and full of happiness, and how that world was robbed from him and his young child.
The Road is a story surrounded by ambiguity. Although we see a little of the world before the catastrophe, we are never informed of how the horrible extinction event happens, or why. For most of the time, the journey seems endless, crossing nowhere to get to nowhere. We do not know who is good and who is bad, but instead, have to “take a shot”. None of the characters in the movie have a name, even in the source novel, and they never address each other as such. The father is credited as Man, his son as Boy, his wife as Woman, and other characters are given labels based on the impressions we have about them, rather than who they are; there is an Old Man, a Veteran, multiple Gang Members, and a Thief. Not only does this namelessness create a certain sense of vagueness that covers the whole cast, but it also makes them “everymen” – the story that the movie entails can be of any man, any woman, any boy and girl plunged into the post-apocalyptic wilderness.
The Road is a story of raw and emotionally-impactful survival. There is the daily struggle, the emotional breakdown, the little joy of finding a can of Coca-Cola in a long-abandon vending machine, the rare moments of family bonding, the fear of facing threats uncertain, unknown, and unforgiving, or the loss of a loved one. The movie makes these emotions so amazingly human, too fragile to touch yet soft enough to cherish and embrace, by focusing on the depth of its characters, emphasizing their inner struggles as much as it does their physical one, with the help of an ever-haunting soundtrack. Both wide-angle and close-up shots are skillfully utilized, and while the wide angles cover the barren landscape and make the two main characters seem small by comparison, the close-ups make up by dramatizing every single look on their faces, the movements of their fingers, the constant sadness in their eyes, and even the thoughts on their minds. The Man and his son are portrayed as the last of the normals in an abnormal world.
And above all, The Road is a story of life and death, of the strength to live and the courage to go through with the unspeakable. The thought of death lingers on the pair’s minds daily, yet the movie is not about how they try to escape death but is about how, on their course of surviving, they learn to accept it. The Man has come to terms with his own eventual death and starts preparing the Boy for the faithful day when he is no longer around, and for the Boy, growing up in a hazardous world has shown him enough. The Man always carries a gun, and it is used to protect the pair from harm, just not in the way one would think. “Two left. One for you and one for me,” the Man said, placing a revolver into the Boy’s hands, instructing him, in case the day comes. “You put it in your mouth and you point it up, just like I showed you, you got it? Then just pull the trigger.” His face remains calm throughout the whole ordeal, and the Boy, though shaken, would eventually come to understand the reasons behind this action. The closer the wasteland that used to be America seems to get the better of them, the more determined they are. The more they accept that they might die, the stronger and brighter the “fire” of life burns within them.
The Road is a story told powerfully and with profound emotions. Its unflinching look at survival and the inevitable cruelty that comes with it might be too brutal for some, yet it is not without quiet moments to reflect. It is set in a bleak world where all hope seems to be lost, yet it takes courage to see that hope already exists inside each and every one of us, and it takes even more to summon it.
The movie poster is from Trailer Addict, and the videos linked all belong to their respective owners.