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The Road

Year: 2009
Production Co: Dimension Films
Director: John Hillcoat
Writer: Joe Penhall/Cormac McCarthy
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker

It looks like a thriller and it's dressed like sci-fi, but John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's book is actually a slow-burning drama and (at least I thought) a parable about raising children.

After the success of No Country For Old Men we can expect Hollywood to plumb McCarthy's catalogue until it gets ridiculous, but without the Coen brothers' distinctive mark this film is more about his vision than Hillcoat's depiction of it.

A catastrophe that's never referred to has killed off most of the human and animal population and is slowly killing the vegetation that's left. The ground is covered with fine ash and the sky is perpetually overcast and the backdrops are the most successful aspect of the film.

If there was a social collapse the world of about ten years hence would look rusty and disheveled exactly like Hillcoat and his production designer Chris Kennedy have wrangled.

It's the small details where it really shines - an office littered with paper and a coke machine in the corner or the splintered and fallen hoardings of buildings and shops. There's only one Lord of the Rings-style CG long shot where the camera sweeps across a dock to show two enormous container ships leaning forlornly after having run aground, but most of it is simply background in the frame, and it's been dressed so carefully you can really believe the whole world is grey and dying.

Unshaven, filthy, hungry and scared of meeting anyone because the tatters of the human race have turned to defensive tribalism and cannibalism, a Man (Mortensen) and his son (Smit McPhee) shove a shopping trolley full of meagre provisions across America towards the coast, knowing it's probably futile but doing it because the alternative would be to sit down and die.

They meet the odd gang, an enigmatic old man (Duvall) and plenty of dead bodies in dusty houses along the way as they search for food and temporary shelter, but that's all the plot there really is.

In flashbacks we learn that the boys' mother (Theron) couldn't live with the fear of waiting for the end so she invited it by simply walking off into the night, never to return. The Man has been left to raise the Boy, and this terrible world is one he was born into, with no idea that there was once petrol, plentiful food or civil society.

He has to keep the Boy safe in a cruel world in a very literal sense, trying to impress upon him how people are essentially selfish and trying not to think about when his life will end and he has to leave the Boy alone. But the Boy's essential nature is to trust and help people, and the Man will have to realise that such an outlook is more important than scratching a living out of the dead world for a few more years.

You might expect Mad Max -style battles for resources. The Road has neither, and both the lack of them and the slow pace will put a lot of people off. But the heavy themes and simplistic approach make it a film worth enjoying at it's pace, not yours.

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