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The Road
Directed by John Hillcoat
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan and Tony Sheppard

Malcolm says: How dark is writer Cormac McCarthy? Put it this way: “The Road,” which is set in a post-apocalyptic world rife with starvation and cannibalism, is actually less bleak than the last movie based on one of his books.

Of course, that movie was the watch-between-your-fingers body-count-athon “No Country for Old Men.” By comparison, “The Road” has less violence and more sympathetic characters. It even goes out of its way to offer some hope in the bleakness, something “No Country” never does—though this hope feels pretty forced.  

The film opens with a middle-age man (Viggo Mortenson) travelling through a destroyed landscape with his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The boy, perhaps nine, was born shortly after some unnamed catastrophe hit the world, most likely a meteor strike that blots out the sun for years with floating debris. Everything is gray. The cities are empty, all the plants have died, trees fall out of the ground at random, and all that’s left to eat is other people. Most of the film moves at a literal walking pace, punctuated with moments of pure terror, as they trudge through a useless landscape in search of a place to survive the next winter.

Is this entertaining? Not in the traditional sense. Instead “The Road” hopes to join an illustrious line of films meant to be admired and thought about, if not actually enjoyed. If anything, it is actually more palatable in visual form. McCarthy is an absurdly talented wordsmith whose main downfall might be his love affair with his own text. The existential artistry shown so well in works like “Blood Meridian” falls a little flat when facing a world where everything really is dying. In the book, it’s hard not to see sentences like “The days sloughed past uncounted and uncalendared” as less about the human condition and more about a 76 year-old writer confronting his own mortality.

To the extent the film works (and it mostly does) it’s because Mortenson’s character, known only as “the man,” has seized on somehow saving his son—apparently the only child he’s ever had, and born relatively late in his life—as the one thing he can do to make meaning out of a broken down world. As his character puts it in a rare bit of text to make it as a narration: “If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”

That he’s doing so in a world whose sparse remaining population consists mainly of redneck cannibals with guns could make this a hard film for parents in particular to watch. One early scene shows him coaching the son on how best to shoot himself in the head with a revolver in case they’re going to be captured.

The weakest part of the film may be the portrayal of the son, though it’s not actor Smit-McPhee’s fault. Despite never knowing our world as it was, he seems softer-hearted than the average nine year old, which I didn’t really buy. Those raised in hardship usually come out tougher than those who remember something else. McCarthy sure knows existential angst, but I wonder if he couldn’t use a course in early childhood development.

Tony’s take: I agree with almost everything Malcolm has written, with the exception of the description of the boy.  He’s grown up knowing nothing but his parents’ company and never being anything but closely watched and cared for. It’s an interesting contrast against the post-apocalyptic backdrop because in some ways he hasn’t grown up deprived at all. That said, in my opinion the movie hinges on whether one appreciates the ending. I didn’t really care for the outcome.

Moviebriefs by Tony Sheppard

Fantastic Mr. Fox
Directed by Wes Anderson
A fun romp through a Roald Dahl (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach”) inspired fairy tale world populated by stop-motion animated critters and Hollywood royalty voice actors. Leading the pack is Mr. Fox himself, voiced by George Clooney, as a husband and father who can’t quite reconcile himself with his domesticated ways after an earlier career as a squab thief. This one’s a pleasant winner, helped by an excellent cussing running gag, that steadily builds its endearment quotient throughout the film.

Ninja Assassin
Directed by James McTeigue
The basic story revolves around ninja clans that take children and train them to be world class assassins. OK, that’s the whole story. So the entertainment value is entirely dependent on whether you enjoy extremely stylized violence that’s like an intricate ballet of severed limbs and copious gallons of computer-generated blood. I actually enjoyed it, as much as anything because it didn’t seem like a bunch of actors swinging on wires the whole time. But don’t go looking for a plot—or for moderation.

Old Dogs
Directed by Walt Becker
Just awful. It’s a shame that more people will see this than Robin Williams’ far better 2009 film “World’s Greatest Dad” (darker than it sounds). To be fair, the preview audience I watched it with seemed to be laughing a lot. But old dogs this lame deserve to be euthanized quickly, preferably in another room.


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