13 January 2010

THE ROAD (Dir. John Hillcoat, US, 2009) - 'The world gets colder week by week as the world slowly dies...'

The end of the world in 'The Road'

In the current issue of the Sight and Sound film journal, the article on John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s supposedly unfilmable novel ‘The Road’ describes it as an American mainstream film that comes closest to imitating the austere landscapes of Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’; high praise indeed then for a film I was slightly sceptical about ever since the critical consensus deemed it merely a credible adaptation. The Sight and Sound review by Philip Kemp still didn’t have much to praise about the film. For a brief time, the shadow of 9-11 seemed to dismiss any sudden inclinations to envision the cinematic aesthetics of a new age American apocalypse yet films like ‘I am Legend’, ‘Terminator Salvation’, ‘28 Days Later’ and the up coming ‘Book of Eli’ (looks viciously formulaic) all seem to adhere to a routine and predictable imagery of the apocalypse. The end of the world has never looked so mundane. Thankfully, John Hillcoat’s previous films including the despairingly beautiful western ‘The Proposition’ all underline a vivid concern for photographing landscapes and creating textures in a brutally visceral style. In many ways, Hillcoat’s episodic narrative, elliptical flashbacks, and un-heroic central male character are just a few of the unconventional markers that transforms the film into somewhat of an oddity which sits between the mainstream and art house parameters. Of course, it is distinctly American in terms of the genre links to the road movie and the emphasis on the biblical subtext. Yet its unremitting bleakness is an uncompromising directorial choice that should be praised for refusing to surrender any of the narrative to grotesquely unnecessary Hollywood style situations in which death is sanitised.

Ultimately, like ‘The Proposition’, this is a terrifically sustained mood piece supported by another hypnotic score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and also featuring a punishing performance from Viggo Mortensen. Returning to this idea of depicting textures, Hillcoat’s aesthetics of apocalypse are manifested acutely in the most primitive of elements; fire, water, earth. The representations of dystopia are endless in American cinema and when compared to the relative absence of utopia in recent genre films, one has to conclude that audiences can certainly see how the future is not really an alternate reality, but is something real and palpable, part of the now. I saw this at a late screening and I was encouraged to see it was busy which suggests ‘The Road’ has been able to find a sizeable audience. I can clearly see this one becoming a strong cult film in the future.

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