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Venice 09: The Road

Posted on Thursday September 3, 2009, 16:00 by Damon Wise in Cannes Film Festival
Venice 09: The Road

Venice began this year with the usual chaos, this time enhanced by the construction work that will continueslong after the festival has finished, transforming the once-tranquil Lido, literally, into a building site. I won't mention the fact that the festival gave me the wrong pass (again), or that the opening film (Baalia) was a flashy, noisy, elegantly designed bore, or that last night's documentary presentation Great Directors – comprising interviews with such random subjects as Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch and, er, Richard Linklater – was very disappointing. Instead, I'll star with the first good film: John Hillcoat's The Road, a dark, apocalyptic drama based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Admirers of Hillcoat's last film, The Proposition, will be interested to see that he hasn't sold out his uncompromising vision, and, though it ends on a note of hope, The Road is one of the most resolutely stark and challenging English-language films you'll see next year. The closest comparison I can think of is Alfonso Cuaron's Children Of men, which I saw in the same cinema several years back, but minus that film's leavening mordant humour. The Road is a film about mortality and parenthood too, and as such takes its duties very seriously.

It starts abruptly and scarily, with The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his pregnant wife (Charlize Theron) being alerted to what at first seems to be an encroaching forest fire. We then cut to an unspecified time in the near future, with The Man and his pre-teen son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) roaming the deserted wastelands of America. As a vision of devastation, it's like Mad Max remade by Tarkovsky, with sparse, grey, charred forests, rusting cars and bands of scavengers cruising the empty roads. It would be camp if if it wasn't so creepily plausible, and the upsetting atmospherics pack a good dramatic punch. This isn't a 2000AD sci-fi movie where gasoline is worth more than gold, it's a hideous, amplified what-if scenario, in which the worst that can happen is not even death; rape is rampant, hunting humans is a sport and cannibalism is a grotesque reality.

It sounds like a horror movie but, surprisingly, it isn't. Like The Proposition it's a deeply moral film about promises that are made and mostly kept; if this were a 50s western you'd expect Alan Ladd to star. As it is, Viggo Mortensen is The Road's noble lead, and the baggage he brings really works for it. Yes, he gives us hints of the proud warrior father-figure from Lord Of The Rings, but bubbling beneath the surface is the tortured assassin from A History Of Violence. Will he ever use his gun, loaded with just two bullets? And if he does, who will he turn it on? It's a question the film toys with to an uncomfortable degree as the full extent of his desperation is gradually revealed. As far as quibbles are concerned, however, there are a few, and most concern realism. One can't help noticing how relatively fit the starving seem, and the scenes with Theron seem disconnected (I haven't read the novel yet, so I don't know the film compares in this regard). More distractingly, though, the film has a number of high-profile guest stars in very small roles, and while this worked wonders for The Hurt Locker, here it simply you keeps you guessing as to who's under the grime. But for all that, The Road is a very brave film, addressing core emotional issues in a highly unstable world, and its sincerity, rare these days, adds a lot of dignity to what might have been clumsy and sentimental.

Another film about troubled times is Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime. Solondz's last two films were not great (I thought Palindromes was OK, Storytelling terrible), so I approached this one with caution, especially since it was widely known that this new film was to be a sequel to Happiness, with an entirely new cast playing the characters. Surprisingly, I thought it really worked, and though it never scales the shock-value heights of Happiness, it shows a much more sensitive side to the director and a lot more maturity in his writing. It begins with social worker Joy (Shirley Henderson) breaking up with her husband (who we soon realise is the dirty phone-caller played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the original) and returning to spend time with her fucked-up family in Florida. In a parallel story Solondz shows that paedophile shrink Dr Bill Maplewood (Ciaran Hinds) has been released from jail and is making tentative moves to reconcile with his family.

If you liked Happiness, there's a lot to enjoy here, especially Pee-Wee Herman as Jon Lovitz's angry ghost and Charlotte Rampling as a voracious man-eater. And if you didn't, you really shouldn't see it: this is still very near-the-knuckle stuff. It becomes both a little schematic and talky at the end, but where Happiness seemed to be, rather meanly, holding up a mirror to human weaknesses, Life During Wartime really tries to wrap up the package by tackling asking some profound questions: is it really possible to forgive and forget? Or is it better just to forget? One thing is certain: I will certainly never forget Alison Janney's fantastic performance. This woman just keeps getting better and better.

As I write, I've just come out of a screening of Valhalla Rising by Nicolas Winding Refn, a near-silent art-action movie in which a superhuman warrior named One-Eye (Mads Mikkelson) breaks free of his pagan masters and joins a group of Christian vikings on a journey to the Holy Land. Scored to gut-wrenching effect by Peterpeter, it's a disorientating experience, and far from the more commercial delights of Refn's last film, Bronson. Where that film was arranged around a stellar performance, Valhalla Rising is a set of less-showy turns that are put into the service of an immersive experience. There's not much narrative here but there's a lot of atmosphere, although both its experimental structure and some extremely graphic gore will surely hinder its commercial potential. Newcomers to Refn's films will be nonplussed, I think, but more seasoned admirers will find echoes of his excellent thriller Fear X, a deceptively similar film (despite its very different appearance), in which a tormented man comes to know his own psyche through violence.

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1 Acho
Posted on Friday September 4, 2009, 12:30
Nearly everything you’ve written about The Road is very reassuring (and I know Richie will agree when he turns up!). The book is fantastic, wholly bleak yet gripping, and it sounds as if the film hasn’t shied away from that. I felt it boded well when Hillcoat and Mortenson were first attached to the project, based on their previous work. Theron’s character barely exists in the book, just in a few flashback-of-sorts passages (no chapters in the book). Casting that part with such a high-profile actor was worrying, and it sounds as if there’s a bit of that throughout the film. That aside, if all you say is true, then goody goody. A comparison with Children of Men (which I LOVE) is always a good thing. (The Variety review, however, is not fulsome in its praise, not at all at all!).

ALISON JANNEY! Saw her in Away We Go too earlier this week. She rocks. I love that women. That is all.

Looking forward to work on Bad Lieutenant.

2 richCie
Posted on Friday September 4, 2009, 12:56
there is nothing wrong with the variety review - if it wasnt for that i'd probably have lost interest in this (i REALLY didnt like the trailer - the more i watch it the less i like it) but it was very very reassuring. also i find it difficult to believe that John Hillcoat can do wrong (though the studio might intefere too much and his vision would be compromised and all that...).
my main concern that remains for this film is that Hillcoat will be pushed towards the mainstream and i don't want that to happen.

as i said in the Empire thread i'm very much looking forward to Valhalla Rising, certianly more so after reading your words.

3 steve_flow
Posted on Friday September 4, 2009, 13:05
I understand the drawbacks of having famous faces cropping up in bit parts, but to be honest I'm so damn happy Michael K. Williams will be back on screen that i couldn't consider this a drawback for the film.

More concerning I'd say is there attempts to get the mothers character some screen time. I haven't read the book for awhile but I remember her only cropping up in short flashback/memories and weird dreams? I would have rather they left her character out and just had her referenced than try and build scenes set in the past.

And the approaching forest fire at the start?> why! the film needs no such introduction its not about what happens, its how people cope.

Still it's Hillcoat so...:D

You going to see Men Who Stare At Goats Damo? Was slightly let down by the trailer after being excited by the initial premise of the book. Would be good to hear something about it

4 reece112
Posted on Saturday September 5, 2009, 13:16
I just got back from the festival and actauuly attended the double screening of Life During Wartime and The Road and honestly say I thought both were great.

I didn't know anything about Life During Wartime before I went in and was pleasently surprised that it turned out to be quirky, funny, very well acted and at times deeply moving and though provoking. I constrasted fantasticly with what was about to come (I don't think I could have sat through two films like The Road back to back, I would never have been able to sleep again!)

The Road is as dark as they come. There are glimmers of hope throughout portrayed by the excellent casting and chemistry of the two leads and you truly feel the desolation of the world they inhabit. The mother is given screen time but it is mainly during dream sequences of the past which help to make the future seem all the more jarring and horrifying. I would really not worry about this film as it certainly dones't feel like it has been made to appeal to a blockbuster audience and th vision has certainly not been comprimised (some members of the audience actually left duriing one of the more intense scenes, presumably because it was simply too much to take for those not previously aware of the excellent story).

Basically, for fans of The Road, do not worry. The vision created by McCarthy has not been comprimised and the underlying themes are not shoved in your face but are subltey hinted at creating the well rounded and dark "what if" scenario. The two leads are brilliant and for once, here is a child star who can not only act, but does portrays so much heart that you'll forget he is even acting!

5 richCie
Posted on Saturday September 5, 2009, 19:08
ahh great to hear more about it cheers reece, and steve didnt you read the variety article? go back to that and see what they say about the forest fire.

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