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"The Road" Film Analysis

Director John Hillcoat’s The Road is a film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning dystopian novel sharing the same title. The movie centers on the journey of a father (Viggo Mortenson) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose names, because they aren’t specified, are implied as Man and Boy, through the chaos of post-apocalyptic earth en route to a warmer climate. Though it isn’t revealed what exactly causes earth’s decay, Man’s narration in the opening, “...clock stopped at 1:17, there was a long sheer of bright light, then a series of low concussions” (Hillcoat), is a strong indication of nuclear war. Through a series of flashbacks it is revealed that Boy was birthed sometime after the disaster, and raised on diminishing supplies by Man and Woman (Charlize Theron). As all vegetation dies, the risk of outside invaders increases. As the weather becomes increasingly colder, Woman finds life unbearable, and commits suicide. With nobody but themselves, Man and Boy travel by foot, scavenging for food and warmth while evading violent gangs of cannibals. Their mantra, “carrying the fire (inside)”, acts as a religious focus for the son whose father wants him to want to live. The Man, on the other hand, clearly on the verge of death, holds dear to his life if only to find a safe place for his son. Upon reaching the coast, Man collapses and dies, leaving Boy on a beach to fend for himself. A family man, with children of his own, eventually takes Boy in as his own, validating Man’s will to survive.

To allude to the smallness of man, and the endless road ahead, director John Hillcoat and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe photographed The Road with a myriad of long shots and extreme long shots. At certain “checkpoints”, where it appeared the protagonists would find safety, deep-focus shots were utilized (focused on those particular points). Close-ups of Viggo Mortenson’s face communicate his character’s fears and pain which cannot be expressed through dialogue to his son, for fear of diminishing Boy’s “fire inside”.

The post-apocalyptic future was shot with a brown/gray filter to emphasize the dull, decaying planet. To symbolize Man and Boy’s hope, fire appears warm and vibrant despite this filter. But aside from fire, colors are nonexistent. This is highlighted by Boy’s amazement at seeing a rainbow at a waterfall in which the protagonists bathe. Even a can of Coca-Cola pried from a vending machine seems to have lost its redness; and when Boy scribbles with crayons, the combined colors form a black void on his sheet of paper. When juxtaposed with the bright, true tones of the flashbacks, this “brave new world”, devoid of color, is truly devastating.

Even more devastating is earth’s lack of light. The lack of sun and artificial light accounts for the film’s low-key lighting. Light is so scarce in the future that flashbacks are almost alarming in their bright cheeriness. High-contrast lighting is used in the cave/fire-side sequences, to show man’s primitive return to chaos.

Being a formalist film, The Road uses extreme angles to affirm the smallness of the protagonists as men, especially with high-angle shots. One of the more dynamic uses of photography and angles is used during an earthquake, in which cameras are attached to falling trees in a forest. This not only reveals the velocity at which the forest seems to attack Man and Boy, but also sympathizes with the dying planet, noting its own pain

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road.

Many ideals can be construed from Hillcoat’s adaption of McCarthy’s pointed novel. One of those is determining the ethics of survival in a world that is chaotic and indifferent to man’s values. Throughout the story, Man seems to instill in Boy a sense of right and wrong; values which Man brings over from the pre-apocalyptic world, and applies to their new conditions. (For example, Man doesn’t want Boy to try whiskey.) Boy piously follows his teachings blindly, so concerned with good and evil, that when Man kills a cannibal making an attempt on his life, he remorsefully asks, “are we still the good guys?” (Hillcoat). To survive is not enough; the protagonists increase the weight of their burden by instituting an ethical code which mainly condemns the consumption of human flesh, despite it being one of the last edible resources.

Another ideal is earth’s indifference to mankind and vice versa. Because of the new world’s barren lack of resources, it’s easy to conclude that the world is dying, when in fact, the world is only changing. It is mankind that is dying in its failure to adapt to these new conditions; it is mankind which took the world for granted; mankind which now pays for its arrogance. As the wise elder Eli (Robert Duvall) states to the protagonists, “I always knew this was coming, this or something like it. There were warnings” (Hillcoat). This of course not only speaks out against nuclear war, but mankind’s failure to take the necessary precautions in preventing earthly ailments such as global warming.

One last principle in the ideology of The Road is the dignity of death. The film acknowledges the extremity of conditions which could prompt one to take his/her own life. Man’s wife states this human condition best, “I don’t want to just survive, don’t you get it?” (Hillcoat), before taking her own life. Even Man takes action in his attempt to shoot his own son, so that he might avoid the terror of cannibalism.

The Road, unlike other disaster and dystopian films of the same nature, succeeds in portraying the deep-rooted human emotions attached to kinship and survival. While the story is a formalist story, the emotions are realist emotions. The film rarely concerns itself with titles for settings and characters, which can sometimes distract from the purity of how people, objects, and ideas relate. The Road is also apathetic to the unnamed disaster that consumes the planet, thus disallowing the Hollywood magic utilized by cliché disaster films to overshadow emotion.

Despite its success in depicting true feeling, the plot follows an all too familiar story-line: man’s journey from point A to point B, while avoiding x, and protecting y. The protagonists per usual, find themselves in near-disastrous situations before being saved in the tradition of deus ex machina. The cannibalistic villains follow a precedent established by George Miller’s Mad Max (1979), which seems to contain the unspoken guidelines for all futuristic villainess (i.e. their apparel).

Though a formalist film, the film’s conclusion is reminiscent of Truffaut’s 400 Blows. If not for the obvious “boy alone on beach” aspect, then the inclusiveness of its ending. For even though Boy moves on with another group of travelers, the fate of the character is unknown. The Road also has Film Noir qualities in its lighting techniques and anti-heroic characters (even though they think they are heroic).

The Road follows Cormac McCarthy’s vision accurately, disallowing the addition of characters and plot-lines that most novel-turned-Hollywood films are exposed to, making John Hillcoat’s second major film of the new century, daring and bold. This vision, combined with the talented ensemble of actors, gives the film a timelessness that transcends its lack of box office success.


Tobias Schneider on March 23, 2017:

What a thought provoking review, it gives an extra layer of depth that the audience could not identify at first glance. Thank you.

katesisco on December 21, 2010:

The ethics of survival is only one: fear.

The planet is unconcerned.

The dignity of death does not exist.

Robert Duvall's speech is important; he replies when asked about his son that he cannot talk about it, not with the man, not with his son. This is important.

The woman tries to protect her son the only way she could; she wanted to kill him along with herself.

The man struggles........and in the end exposes his child, the warrant of god, to exactly what he has struggled against for a decade. The protected child, the warrant of god, is merely saved to be savaged by the uncaring and unconcerned world after the father's death.

Do you really think the 'family group' is anything but a figment of the child's mind? He stays with his father's body, not eating, slowly sinking into mental collapse, to hallucinate the loving caring world that no longer exists.

Or the cannibals were actually there, which if they are not the 'family group' surely await if the child lives long enough.

Micky Dee on December 13, 2010:

Nice review! This is some work!

Ahmed Alami on September 28, 2010:

Thanks for this excellent and pertinent review.

It's really a very interesting movie.

ladyjane1 from Texas on July 05, 2010:

Very nicely done WA. I watched this film a few days ago and it was very powerful indeed. Vito's charactors will to survive under those harshest of circmstances were very impressive and I was very disappointed that his wife comitted suicide and left her husband and boy. I understood why she did it but felt it was unfair to the man and boy I guess. At any rate you wrote a great review here and I just wanted to comment on it. Cheers.

WA Christopher J. (author) from First American Ruins, MI on June 13, 2010:

I appreciate you reading it! Yeah, you definitely got your story's worth in the literature. The movie is pretty unnecessary after reading the book.

Carolyn Augustine from Iowa on June 11, 2010:

WA Christopher, I loved your review. I didn't see the film after reading the book, because for me it was just too much. But I loved your analysis of the characters, the themes of the story, and will continue to read your book and film reviews. Fantastic!

WA Christopher J. (author) from First American Ruins, MI on June 09, 2010:

Dohn, your "The Road" Hub is excellent, of course! I'm going to jump the gun and link yours to mine. Thanks a ton.

dohn121 from Hudson Valley, New York on June 09, 2010:

This was very well written. This is on-par with a college-thesis. You analyzed this story extremely well.

I wrote a hub article on Cormac McCarthy's original. Would you mind if I added a link to this hub article? Please let me know.


WA Christopher J. (author) from First American Ruins, MI on June 08, 2010:

Lucy, thank you too for reading! Make sure to let me know what you think of the film.

WA Christopher J. (author) from First American Ruins, MI on June 08, 2010:

drbj, I appreciate the critique! You must find a copy. Let me know what you think.

WA Christopher J. (author) from First American Ruins, MI on June 08, 2010:

Pamela, thanks for reading! I'm very passionate about this film. I hope you are able to view it sometime.

Pamela Dapples from Arizona. on June 08, 2010:

Wow! That's some review.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on June 07, 2010:

This is a powerful and well-written review. You seem to have more than a fleeting knowledge of the way scenes are framed and camera angles are utilized.

Will try to find a copy of this film. Thanks.

Dark Lucy on June 07, 2010:

Brilliant review, I'm going to go and watch this tonight now, Cheers, Lucy