Details: (MA15+), 103 mins, In Cinemas 28 January 2010, United States, English
Synopsis: A post-apocalyptic tale of a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee trying to survive by any means possible.An adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Corman McCarthy.
No country for young or old men.
This excellent adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cormac McCarthy novel dwells in the limits of endurance. In its simple story of a father and son’s journey across a post-apocalyptic landscape, it questions how much you can permit the heart and mind to endure before ‘the fire inside’ is extinguished.
Two unnamed survivors of an unnamed environmental catastrophe trudge along the charred landscape, “where each day is greyer than the one before”. They head west towards the ocean, for no clear reason other than it’s somewhere they haven’t yet been, and the boy has never seen the sea.
Ruled by the instincts of self-preservation, they wheel their meagre possessions in a shopping trolley, scavenge for food and avoid the cannibalistic hordes who seek out the vulnerable and weak. The man carries a gun and two bullets, in readiness for the fork in the road that will render a double suicide their best option.
As The Man, a stoic and weather-beaten Viggo Mortensen embodies the unspeakable fears that lurk in the shadows of parenthood as he struggles to protect his son (a cherubic Kodi Smit-McPhee) from the horrors of daily life.
The concept of morality has collapsed in on itself in this hellish world and in the reductive logic of the times, the “good guys” are simply those who don’t eat the rest. In a world where the social contract has been chewed up and spat out (as have its authors), the best the man can hope for is that his son continue to “carry the fire” within.
He instructs his son to trust no one, to remain ever vigilant for signs of life that would point to evidence of the "bad guys". But the boy has known no life than this, and seeks out the inherent good in everyone. A four-foot moral compass, he spurs his father on, and is forever willing to share his dwindling foodstuffs with fellow travellers.
At rest, the man revisits moments of his former life: in flashback we see the world collapse beyond his bedroom curtains, with his pregnant wife (Charlize Theron) by his side. Later we observe their first few years of isolation, when she has grown to resent his lack of self-determination, and opts to seal her own fate… But the present offers little time for reflection, and the arrival of fresh horrors jolt him out of these brief flirtations with nostalgia.
John Hillcoat’s direction (of Joe Penhall’s script) captures the inexplicable sadness of McCarthy’s world. It’s a gruelling watch, all 119-minutes of it are stamped with dread and foreboding. Though you feel the joy of the boy’s first – and only – taste of soft drink (an apocalyptic decade’s no match to 375ml of preservatives), and a can of tinned fruit elicits ecstasy, these rare moments of shared happiness are marred by the knowledge that danger lurks at the next turn for the grubby twosome.
And this faithful adaptation doesn’t scrimp on the roadkill – this is a John Hillcoat film, after all. To that end, some of the more gruesome moments of McCarthy’s prose are vividly realised, including the shock discovery of a cannibal’s food cellar, and some squirm-inducing do-it-yourself surgery.
Hillcoat keeps the CGI-disaster to a minimum and so, his apocalypse seems far more feasible than say, a Roland Emmerich disaster-porn one. Hillcoat doesn’t indulge in the whys and wherefores of the cataclysm. Instead, he focuses on the aftermath – the grey skies, felled trees and the flash fires that continue a decade on. Though the bleak palette is the handiwork of professional colourists, the barren landscapes are firmly rooted in reality; the film shot in and around what remains of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, and in the urban wastelands of America’s northeast.
Fans of the celebrated novel won’t be disappointed by this intelligent adaptation, and its existential themes should resonate to those intrigued by its premise. It’s a rousing story of parental love and basic human decency in the midst of abject despair.
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