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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 The Road


Director John Hillcoat (2009)

Cecil B DeMille used to say his ideal film would start with an earthquake and work up to a climax.

The Road starts with a shaking and a rumbling, waking Boy.

“It’s OK,” says Man. “It’s just another earthquake”, like it was just a nightmare.

Earthquakes count for normality in The Road, adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel. The nightmare is real.

An unnamed conflagration has razed all life from the Earth apart from the insects and some handfuls of human survivors who spend all their time scavenging for food and fuel, there being no telly.

Among them are Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who have been adandoned by Woman (Charlize Theron) who preferred to take her own life rather than being eaten by the bands of cannibals who now roam America, and probably elsewhere, too.

Suicide is a popular escape. Man teaches Boy how to shoot his own brains out if it comes to it, tilting the pistol barrel up, like so, as though he was an ordianary American movie-dad, teaching junior how to pitch a baseball.

The world is getting colder and darker and The Road is shot in shades of muffled grey, looking very much like Brighton today. I thought I saw a shot that looked like Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which I visited a year later. And it turns out it was, bringing this apocalyptic vision slightly nearer.

Man and Boy set out on the road. Man wants to get to the sea, perhaps hoping there might be fish. Boy has seen a map with with the sea painted blue, and he craves for the lost colour.

When they get there the sea, too, is grey and dead. But it was the road that was really keeping them going, giving them a sense of purpose where there seemed no hope.

Like all narratives that cast human beings adrift from civilisation, The Road asks what we’re really about. Are we good guys or bad guys? as the boy asks. And how do we know?

Man says they are “carrying the fire”, a moral sense that sets them apart from the cannibals, who at least carry a little extra weight. But this superiority is challenged by Man’s brutal treatment of Thief (played by Michael K Williams, who was Omar, another great survivor, in The Wire).

In the end, and rather disappointingly, hope seems to lie in hackneyed American values. They find a can of Coke, that ultimate symbol of US cultural imperialism, in a rusting vending machine, and it is good. Trust amidst the barbarism is discovered in the nuclear (or should that be post-nuclear) family.

It’s a good film, generating a grim atmosphere that clings to you like fog. But you have to ask the question – would we all really descend into cannibalism without the love of a good woman, two children and, godammit, a dog?

January 12, 2010

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