The end of the world on film comes — some would say expertly tailored — in many respects to particular audiences. Southland Tales, from Richard Kelly of Donnie Darko fame, exploded with surreal and ironic touches. And if, as advertised, the end was to come with a bang rather than a whimper, think of it as an implosion of intelligent design for the indie faithful.
On the other end of the spectrum, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 almost completely dismissed the Mayan root of his apocalyptic tale, focusing instead on getting the biggest and most ludicrous bang for the buck out of his computer generated bag of tricks. This was less the end of days than a self-inflicted wound to the computer screens of an industry of tireless technicians, fearful that no one would ever consider hiring them again because directors would give up on trying to more seamlessly integrate the tricks and tools into narrative storytelling.
Of course, we’ve also seen how the end can be a springboard for a few last laughs. Zombieland, with its trek through the zombiefied desolation in order to reach an amusement park, taught us the rules of the road for survival, replacing the soot-smudged brave face for a knowing, shit-eating grin.
None of these options can compare to the darkness in author Cormac McCarthy’s heart as he faced the path to the end of it all. For McCarthy, there’s no reason why, no big bang, no hope. The Road, his Pulitzer Prize-winning Oprah Book of the Month Club entry, knows Man is near extinction, even if his few stragglers don’t, and it doesn’t matter one bit how we got to this point. We are there, and he grants us the opportunity to watch the world fade to black.
Our guides are a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wandering alone, trying to reach the shore while staying one step ahead of the bad guys — the ones out there looking to kill for survival, the ones who had already lost all remnants of their humanity.
But the man knows that humanity and memories of such quaint notions can lead to death. He fights against it, but he dreams of life before the trigger, before the shot that signaled the end. He remembers his wife (Charlize Theron), the mother of his son. He remembers that she didn’t want to keep on fighting. Now, in the waking world, the man only has his son, his angel, his last real lifeline to what has been lost.
Mortensen wields primal urges more quickly it seems than the smiles and frowns of the everyday. In his most recent double feature (David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Eastern Promises), he presented his daily face as a mask; it was only when he ripped it away and acted in anger, when he struck out without thought based on pure instinct, that he revealed his true self. Here, we watch the rawness open into a gaping wound: the death of him. But it is not only his expiration but also that of us all, the best of us.
Direcor John Hillcoat (The Proposition), much like Joel and Ethan Coen did with No Country for Old Men, has adapted McCarthy’s bleak vision without sacrificing any of his own sensibilities. The journey of The Proposition was a headlong ride towards a finale that was miles beyond what could be considered merely tragic, and The Road is even further past that point.
In fact, that works against the film text versus the literary text. The end is as relentless as the hellhounds on the trail. There’s no hope, and less chance for substantial engagement beyond the grim reality. Mortensen provides much-needed illumination into our dark souls, but it might be a long while before we’re able to wash away the grime after this trek.
Not that it matters, because by the time the film ends, you’ll likely never want to see another apocalyptic tale ever again. Grade: B
Opens Dec. 18. Check out theaters and show times, see more photos from the film and get theater details here.