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The Road, bleak but touching

By Arthur J Pais
November 26, 2009 12:39 IST
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An often heard comment at the Toronto International Film Festival where The Road was shown in September: It is bleak and numbing, and yet I could not get myself give up on it.

Of course, many of the critics had read Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel which was also relentlessly dark. But conjuring the images in one's mind is very different from seeing them unfold in terrifying details on the screen.

The book, which was a bestseller when published by Knopf a few years ago, has been reissued by Vintage, the paperback division of Knopf.

So as The Road, which is now showing in a handful of American cities and expands across the country, hopefully with a strong word of mouth and critical praise (which it strongly needs), many viewers, including those who have admired the novel, could still be wondering if they should watch the film.

When people asked me in Toronto if they should recommend the film to their friends or if they themselves should see it at the public screening, I told them that though it is a harrowing and scary survival drama, it is a quite moving experience.

Far removed from the big budget apocalyptic film spectacles such as the current box-office hit 2012, The Road directed by John Hillcoat from Joe Penhall's script is an admirably performed and intensely grim film which in the final reckoning may  the audiences and leave them actually feeling warm. The bond between the father and son, and the love they share is delicately brought out, making the film an excellent exercise in tasteful melodrama.

Many reviewers may offer an answer to the question viewers if The Road should be seen in the Thanksgiving holiday season.

Stephen Rea of The Philadelphia Inquirer offers an excellent assurance: 'With its depiction of solitary, frightened survivors and roving bands of cannibal marauders, the film is not exactly your typical Thanksgiving feel-good fare. But it is, in its own dark way, a celebration of the bonds of family, of father and son, husband and wife '

The distinguished novelist Dennis Lehane (Mystic River which was made into an Oscar winning film) is an admirer of the novel, and soon could be endorsing the film.

'McCarthy (No Country for Old Men which was made into an Oscar winning film by Coen brothers) has always written about the battle between light and darkness; the darkness usually comprises 99.9% of the world, while any illumination is the weak shaft thrown by a penlight running low on batteries,' he muses on Amazon. Com.

'In The Road, those batteries are almost out -- the entire world is, quite literally, dying -- so the final affirmation of hope in the novel's closing pages is all the more shocking and maybe all the more enduring as the boy takes all of his father's (and McCarthy's) rage at the hopeless folly of man and lays it down, lifting up, in its place, the oddest of all things: faith.'

So far this year, another grim but more hopeful film Precious, which is emerging as a hit, has created quite a bit of Oscar nomination film. The Road is also worthy considering of major nominations.

The film centres on a father (Vig Mortensen) fighting for survival on the road with his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). They are unarmed In flashbacks, we get to see how they have come to this pass. Many years have passed, we learn, when earthquakes and fires have destroyed most of the earth, including most of its people, vegetation, and animals. Against many odds and sufferings including the danger posed by cannibals, the father hopes to take the son to a warmer and sunny climate.

The choice a young pregnant woman (Charlize Theron) makes, as the cataclysm approaches, is tough and would disturb some viewers but the final act offers an indelible image.

A mystical man called Ely (Robert Duvall) who offers prophetic warnings is yet another interesting character.

The movie gains a lot from not only the performances of older stars but also the young actor from Australia.

Mortensen, who has been doing a lot of press for the film, raved about the kid actor at the Toronto International Film Festival.

'If you don't have a child that has the gift, the emotional availability, and more than anything the intelligence to have that through-line ...if you don't believe him, and believe the boy and the man's relationship,' he said in an interview, ' there's no faking it in the story.'

For scriptwriter Penhall and director Hillcoat, too, there was no faking. They have made a slow-moving and yet taut, intelligent and immensely moving film. At the end of the journey, there is much to applaud, much to discuss, and a temptation to read or read the book.

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Arthur J Pais in New York