RIORI Presents Installment #176: Javier Aguirresarobe & John Hillcoat’s “The Road” (2009)



The Players…

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, with Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Garret Dillahunt, Micheal K Philips, Molly Parker and Robert Duvall.


The Basics…

A planetwide catastrophe has destroyed Earth’s ecosystem, and like the ancient dinosaurs humanity is gradually circling into extinction.

Fate means nothing to a desperate father doing his damnedest, by wit and grit, to protect his son in the aftermath. An endgame of no food, no bullets, no shelter and cannibalism eating away at what remains, figuratively and literally.

All that really remains is the road, a way towards some nonce of civilization. Location unknown, perhaps near the coast, if there is such a haven to be found.

It doesn’t matter, reality does, to a father driven to protect his son at any cost.

It’s something to live for. If only that.


The Rant…

Well, isn’t this timely?

I read something once by my wingman Stephen King when he re-released his ur-COVID-19 epic The Stand. The novel was published anew cleaned up and uncut, resulting in an sprawling tome of Armageddon clocking in at give-or-take 1200 pages. You get your money’s worth. It’s a very cool read, and a very accurate and sobering tale about the human race—what’s left of it—trying to adapt to the fact that civilization at large is gone. Now it’s time to start from scratch. Oh, and there’s a lot of weird supernatural hokum wrapped up in the culmination of the forces of good taking a stand against the forces of evil. Hey, I told you it was a Stephen King novel. Whad’ja expect? A quilting bee/unicorn cotillion?

What I read that stuck in my craw from King’s director’s cut didn’t come from the story proper. Not some pithy meditation from the hero about survival. Not a cautionary metaphor about science run amok. Not even some religious mumbo-jumbo about the Wrath of God and why those packets of airline peanuts are so gosh darn hard to open. Nope. I read it the foreword.

We’ve either read and/or seen a lot of stories about the end of the world. Some sociopolitical like The Day After. Some nihilistic and/or existential like the Mad Max series. Some metaphorical like The War Of The Worlds, Children Of Men, Deep Impact and countless in between. Some dumb as f*ck like Armageddon. All these movies have one factor in common, and King hit on it perfectly in his novel. Well, the intro actually.

I’ve long since lost my copy of the uncut version of The Stand (chances are the thing just feel apart after too much abuse), and the author penned the phrase perfectly, but the years have worn on and dammit I can’t remember it properly. Some of you might ask, “So why don’t you go out a buy a fresh copy?” Like everything else these days, from economic ruin to dandruff, thank the coronavirus. My workplace, like many, is closed indefinitely. A fresh book would be nice. Already had enough comics, dicking around in the kitchen, laundry, YouTube feeds and working my way through the Resident Evil series on my Nintendo, Zero thru 4. Things are so scattered these days little wonder why I can’t recall the quote. Besides, my online bank account was hacked twice in one month, so the PayPal balance is zero. This happen pre-quarantine, BTW and I fixed it which I why I didn’t call you. So don’t worry yourself none.

But I’ll try my best to recall that sentiment. King commented in the intro to his massive “dark chest of wonders” that when considering a story about the end of the world that you yourself would survive. That cast of imaginary thousands you argue with in the shower? Gone. All gone. Save you. Whenever we watch The Road Warrior, On The Beach or even A Boy And His Dog in the back of our minds we scream “This could never happen! Not to me!” Welp, a nasty, highly communicable virus is—at this time of writing—stirring up the soup all pandemic-like. King is being plagued, so to speak, about the allegory of The Stand all over the Net. Something akin to “Not me!” is feeling a little Pollyanna these days, and there was no kind of procedure to fix her legs back in 1913 by way of 1960, despite what Uncle Walt wanted you to believe.

It could happen. It has happened. It is happening, but not in a Captain Trips kind of way. 99.99% of humanity will come through this pandemic unscathed, the latest iteration of Mother Nature cleaning house. “You” will survive, but here’s the hairy dilemma about end-of-the-world scenarios. Sure, you made it. Now what? Everything you knew is gone. Friends and loved ones are gone. Hell, your job and your car and your online streaming and your f*cking Nintendo Switch is offline! Again, now what? It’s to be likened to the comic book super villain who finally conquers the world. So now what? Garden? Your robot horde did scorched earth to all the crops, and you’re f*cking Nintendo Switch if offline to boot!

Seriously though, considering the apocalyptic films mentioned above, with the assuredness of survival in some form dare grants the certainty of solitude. Being all alone, separated from the things that once made you whole, rudderless and craving fellowship. Few and far between in those movies. Good motivation, makes for good tension. There’s a lot to lose in such films about losing everything. Would you want to survive, and to what end? Many storytellers, not unlike King have tackled this penultimate existential matter: where to go from here? The ultimate answer is finality: giving up, remorse, regret and death. Not a pretty picture, but it sure does make for some compelling stories.

Me? At the end of the world? I think I’d be holed up in a subterranean bunker retrofitted from an abandoned missile silo in Kansas living off Spam canned during the Truman administration and still kicking around with my Nintendo (the NES. No Wi-Fi, remember). Or just plain dead, beaten to a pulp with empty bottles of bleach by loonies upset that by finally having to accept there will not be another Avengers movie.

Fatalistic? Yes. Realistic? Maybe. It would probably be better than the alternative. Meaning aimlessly wandering towards some scintilla of lingering civilization where you can be…what? No longer alone? No longer in exile? Free craft services? Nope. Human again, which got blasted to smithereens barely days ago that feel like years. Those imaginary years take their toll, and smirking at “Not me!” is a curse and not a boast.

For a sense of finality, Samuel Delany claimed, “Apocalypse has come and gone. We’re just grubbing in the ashes.”

And what are ashes? Spent. Nature’s final regard for all things spent.

*tumbleweeds skitter across the dusky webpage*

Bleak enough for you? You drink your daily dose of Purell this morning? I opt for Metamucil myself.

Now who wants s’mores? Better yet, how ’bout an inoculation?

Slow down there. Before we get to the usual cinematic thrashing it would be remiss for me to not spout some opinions about the outbreak itself. Everyone else has. WordPress is social media after all, and what good is social media if not for smearing panic, fear mongering, disinformation and cute cat videos? Everyone has an option on the nationwide quarantine thanks to our COVID-19 party crasher. I do too, but it’s not about infection and potential death lurking on every doorknob. I’m not worried about getting infected. Not really. I’m more concerned about people’s irrational behavior surrounding the virus, and what fear and ignorance can do en masse. I’d rather be laid up in an oxygen tent in some hospital than be trampled under foot getting the last bale of Charmin, dig?

Viruses are highly communicable, but relatively easy to avoid. You catch a virus by coming into physical contact with it, namely shaking hands or being sneezed on by the infected. All viruses are transmitted via physical contact. Be it the flu, the common cold, corona and let’s not forget HIV all travel alike. Avoid sick people and keep yourself clean and you’re more or less golden. All that hand sanitizer you be laving your body in? Doesn’t work. Doesn’t do squat against viruses. Read the bottle. It says antibacterial, not antiviral. I know that sanitizer is a quick fix when you can’t properly wash your hands, but it’s hardly a substitute. In fact, too much sanitizer is bad for your skin; dries it out, kills off good bacteria you need and renders your hands more susceptible to possible infection, and viruses love a good open wound.

And those surgical masks? You’re using them wrong. Apart from the fact that the majority of said masks are manufactured in China, they are not meant for fending off viruses. Surgical masks are meant for surgery, and it might be safe to claim that those are a final precaution when a patient goes under the knife to prevent infection. You know, in case  of the sniffles or the sterile environment of an OR with all those chemicals and filters might not be enough. You’ve seen on TV some throng of Asian people going about their day wearing masks, right? They’re not afraid of getting sick. They already are sick. Coughing and sneezing on people is a keen way to spread a virus, so using a mask is not just a courtesy but also alerts others to stay back. “Hey, they have a mask on. Give them a wide berth. It’s flu season, you know.” A surgical mask with protect you from corona as well as catcher’s mask would. I saw a guy at the store the other day wearing a safety mask, the kind a carpenter would wear to avoid accidentally inhaling sawdust. Insert facepalm here (along with the other guy pushing his cart wearing woolen mittens. It was 65 degrees that day). The only benefit those masks may have is keeping your gooey fingers away from your infectious gob so you don’t accidentally wipe a booger on a sick person.

This low-level fear I can tolerate, barely. Whet gets me in a twist is hearing about how Cabela’s can’t keep ammo in stock, or morons have quit drinking Corona cerveza mas fina for reasons other than it sucks, or “religious” groups come oozing out of the sociopolitical sewer with hatespeak about (insert disenfranchised minority group here) is the cause of this plague, beating their Bibles with the Book of Revelation all gone over with a highlighter, or our Prez and his cronies really starting to feel a tad silly about certain budgetary cuts to educational and scientific resources. This isn’t The Andromeda Strain, but I’m pretty sure the CDC’s version of pre-flight instructions got lost in the shuffle.

There. Still not bleak enough? No fear, now we come to movie part. Ready?


The Story…

We have a father (Mortensen) and we have his son (Smit-McPhee) at the edge of the world. The end of the world. What life remains is hard and terrible. There is no government, no order, no medicine, no food, nowhere.

We have this fragile family shuffling down a road in search of some sanity. There’s a shortage of that also. We have roving tribes of survivors out for food, ammo, gasoline and preying on the weak and the halt. We have a father guiding his son along the ways of this ruined world, where starvation and suicide is standard operating procedure as are the lost ideals of a republic of men as only fantasy for his son in the wake of the apocalypse.

We have this bonding endure, because we all have an undying faith in when the right people come together, community may thrive.

For now, we will have to get by eating dead insects and keep on moving down the road.


The Breakdown…

Not so fast.

Watching The Road reminded me of something about directing a film. I’ve always been kinda confused about how a seamless film gets made (save editors) with two directors, like The Road did here. I’ve seen a few of these movies, and to merit they’ve all be pretty good, if not sometimes great. Wayne Wang’s collaboration with author Paul Auster with Smoke, Faxon and Rash’s The Way, Way Back, George Miller teaming up with George Ogilvie for a kinder, gentler, weirder Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix series (well, the first one anyway). Most Disney and Pixar animations work this way as well. There are many more collaborations I haven’t seen, but they got done. How? How in synch do two filmmakers have to be in order to have a shared vision about what their final product should be? A lot of creative vibes and a lot of compromising is my guess. Probably a lot of hair pulling, too.

So how’s it get done? I stumbled onto this forum on Quora that was pretty spot on. Yes, fair compromises must be made, as well as more than a few concessions. If the directing pair have a good rapport—kind of like between the Coen Brothers—then the final product is paramount, not egos clashing. Guess overall it requires focus.

Boy howdy, co-directors Aguirresarobe and Hillcoat were very focused in constructing The Road. After watching this, I got the serious impression that they read the McCarthy novel many times, and labored over recreating the harrowing tale of survival on film. No easy task, and I never read the book, but I feel without their shared focus this movie could’ve fallen apart like a house of cards slicked with Vaseline. That falling apart feeling is the feel of the film and the feel of the direction. It’s all a good thing, to tell a story like The Road‘s.

These co-directors do. Okay, if you wanna get technical Aguirresarobe was ostensibly the cinematographer, and there is a bit of debate about his actual directorial contribution to the movie. I feel the credit is due because how crucial using landscape was in telling the story. Framing everything just right? Duh, that’s a cinematographer’s job and savvy. With The Road, the blasted landscape of scorched earth is every bit as essential to telling the story as is the story proper. The Road is a survival tale, but all that monochrome was sickening (in a good way), and who else makes sure the camera work flows seamlessly. Right. A great portion of the movie reminded me of the third act of Full Metal Jacket, what with all the burnt out buildings, smoke and scree everywhere. “I am in a world of sh*t,” Private Joker stated. If you think about it Kubrick’s Vietnam epic is a tale of survival, too. Washed out and grey makes for good grimness it appears as well as a dreadful feeling of no way out. The Road never suggests one. That’s its design.

The Road is certainly grim enough. The “post-impact” world Viggo and Kodi journey through is a washed-out, ruined ecosystem of a planet that is dying. It’s implied at the film’s outset that some natural cataclysm occurred—a massive meteor strike like the Chicxulub impact event that wiped out the dinosaurs—and the ensuing landscape the two traverse sure seems that way. Trees broken in two like matchsticks, dust storms, always cold and always in half-light. Humanity is going by way of the dinosaurs: slouching towards extinction. It’s a harrowing movie to watch—the Nick Cave/Warren Ellis soundtrack sure goes the distance—and our star Viggo is eloquent in reciting McCarthy’s story of survival and loss.

You ever see a film that starred a certain actor that no one else could’ve more ideal for the part? Al Pacino as Micheal Corleone. Judy Garland as Dorothy Gail. Heck, even Heath Ledger as the Joker? Viggo was built to play his part. Literally. According to the IMDb: “To live the role [he] would sleep in his clothes and deliberately starve himself. At one point, he was thrown out of a shop in Pittsburgh, because they thought he was a homeless man.” Truth be told, Viggo didn’t exactly starve himself. He started shooting at a base weight and just ate less and less as the filming went on. That’s dedication, and the gaunt lines and grime on his face shows it. Some ideal actors relish their roles and as the audience you could not pick a better Randall P McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest than Jack Nicholson. Viggo looks like his role hurts, not enjoying it at all and making it look natural. That homeless man story I find curious because the cafe owner’s didn’t recognize him? I thought the Lord Of The Rings movies were big ticket, that or the man got his, pardon the pun, road work down pat.

Sorry. Moving on to the other side of the Father’s coin.

Kodi was a very good foil for Viggo. Father is all worn out, sick and still able to remember Earth as it was before the vastator arrived and ruined everything, which beyond parental obligation is something that he tries to cling to as a vestige of his humanity: the way it was. The Son was raised in this world, so abnormal has always been the norm for him. He’s always wide-eyed, questing, always seeking guidance from his Father who is all too grave to not tell his son the truth. Or what he makes it out to be. Truth is there are no rules in this trashed world, just survive. To what end is ambiguous, and the Son is constantly probing. Are they the good guys? Father isn’t so sure, but at least that notion is keeping his only child holding on. One on the ascent crossing one on the descent, and neither the twain shall meet.

If there were any messages in The Road (intentional or accidentally) they totally depended on your view of humanity at large. I’m pretty cynical, but not a pessimist. What’s the difference? Here’s where I draw the line: a pessimist thinks the world sucks. A cynic thinks the world could do better. That’s a slight message The Road might’ve been aiming at. Despite all the pervasive gloom and doom The Road traffics in there is an undeniable glimmer of hope in the ashes. That might be a ruse just to keep the tension up and be baited, but I think the palsied optimism Viggo had and Kodi was searching for allows us to keep up the chase. Perhaps it’s the relatable aspect of family. Namely, being a dad is tough. I’m one, and we’re always kinda second-class citizens to moms. Well, the mom here REDACTED in the first act, not long after REDACTED, so the Father had to fill twin roles, provider and nurturer. Viggo is clearly stressed about going it alone, but Kodi (who has more than a slight resemblance to Theron) is his mother’s child, and reminded Viggo of this with every clutching question about where to find the next meal or maybe a tank of gas for a non-existent vehicle. Viggo’s Father serves one purpose: provide, beyond the pale. By the second act I stopped taking notes and just watched. There was a lot to take in.

The Road must’ve been the most unglamorous end-of-the-world epic ever. And one of the best I’ve ever seen. Sure The Road lacks any elan of Mad Max, The Matrix or even The Day After. It needs none. It’s dismal, brusque, unassuming delivery is enough. I watched most of the film with a hand covering my mouth. Not out of getting nauseous (and there were plenty of scenes that invited that). According to the dictionary of body language “the hand covers the mouth as the brain subconsciously instructs it to try to suppress the deceitful, or in other cases unintended, words that are being said.” Namely, I did not want to believe that what The Road was informing me was correct. The film was an unfortunate and terribly realistic image about our extinction as a species yet still struggling to matter as being human. The human factor was never lost with The Road. Unlike other post-apocalyptic films, the “end of the world” is merely a backdrop to serve as a McGuffin (EG: Mad Max again, or the re-iterations of I Am Legend) to drive the story. We are in the belly of the hungry beast in The Road. Consequences are dire, life is cheap, survival is terrible and the endgame is…what? Hopelessness? Despair? A journey to the coast?

No. Retaining some sliver of the “nobility” of being human. We’re the only species (maybe barring elephants) that are aware our existence is fragile and finite. If we’re wise, we know that every moment matters. Every warm meal, every soft bed, every orgasm, handshake, favorite band, good book, memory matters. Ultimately Viggo and Kodi remind us of that for going without and within. No matter what the terrain.

Oh BTW, heaven forbid I get do sick: you were right, I was wrong, I’m outta TP and Corona is still a sh*tty beer.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Not the definitive post-apocalypse movie, but pretty close. Now go wash your hands.


The Stray Observations…

  • “Why are you taking a bath?” “I’m not…”
  • I liked the small details in the first act of things getting increasingly dire, like the stocking up of batteries and other non-perishables. Minor details that helped build tension.
  • “Two left.” Grim.
  • Literally caught with his pants down. The only vestige of humor here.
  • Piano. Out of tune.
  • “It’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.” And how.
  • The weevil bit. Not that subtle, but effective for the curious.
  • “Are we still the good guys?

The Next Time…

We hit the slopes a la Meatballs at a ski lodge where the resident slashers are usually knocked Out Cold on beer, weed and dwindling lift ticket sales.

Who’s up for double diamond?


 

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