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HOT: The Road

the-road-posterWhat distinguishes The Road (based on Cormac McCarthy‘s novel) from other post-apocalyptic films is John Hillcoat’s focus on the realistic issues that humanity would face in such a situation, raising questions on the ideals of humanity and human nature. What part of humanity do we expect to last in a situation where the world is ending and everyone’s out for their own survival? Would we join the cannibalistic herds or retain our sense of humanity no matter what price we pay?

Hillcoat dissects these questions in several layers and reveals that we are as human as the choices we make. His revelation is even more noteworthy considering the film mostly relies on focused acting and beautiful yet solemn cinematography.

The characters in the film do not have names. They’re simply cast as Man, Boy, and Woman, as names don’t really matter in post-apocalyptic tales. Everyone is the same, just flesh and blood. In this particular tale, the Man and Boy try to fend for themselves in the resulting cold and ash. Their main purpose is to make it south to a warmer climate, but they have no idea what awaits them there or what they would do next once and if they arrive. With this purpose in mind, the Man and Boy scavenge for food and avoid the cannibals on their way south.

Yes, that’s right. In The Road the majority of the human population turns cannibalistic in the absence of food. These herds hunt together like animals but still seem to have a certain air of modernity and civilisation about them. They live in houses and still eat from plates. Moreover, they have access to whatever technology that’s left behind. The Man and Boy, on the other hand, are dirty and live in the wild with nothing but a pistol with two bullets and a rusty shopping cart. They eat insects and whatever else they can find. They’re physically portrayed as animals, but it’s this conflicting depiction that grabs the viewer’s attention. The co-existence of civilisation and cannibalism really challenges our current understanding of what it means to be civilised and raises the question: do we have to be civilised to be human?

To answer that, we need to examine how we define ourselves. Humans have traditionally defined themselves and civilisation for that matter in relation to their superiority over animals, which includes technology, and their success at resisting animal instincts. It’s this relative definition that gives us a proud sense of who we are, but the danger lies herein. Relative definitions are not stable especially when the surrounding environment changes, and technology may be used for good or evil. What becomes acceptable may change if the relative point changes. It’s really in these moments when people find who they really are. They may break under the pressure or they may still be proud and do whatever’s humane and dignified. This central choice frames The Road, which deserves to be seen.

Despite being a little slow at times, The Road is blessed with great acting from Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee. The father-and-son pair garner instant sympathy and we take on their journey seriously. Thanks to Hillcoat’s realistic approach and the non-existence of unnecessary visuals, their plight is made real, landing sci-fi material safely in the drama space.

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