Without sounding too simple about it, John Hillcoat is an interesting filmmaker with an interesting career trajectory. He first appeared on the film scene in 1989 with the brutal prison drama GHOSTS...OF THE CIVIL DEAD, a fairly brilliant, difficult-to-watch movie that was, at the very least, highly regarded in its native Australia. Despite this acclaim, it was several years before Hillcoat made another film, 1996's TO HAVE AND TO HOLD, which remains almost completely unseen outside of Australia. Almost a decade elapsed before his next film, 2005's THE PROPOSITION, his first film to have a wide release in the U.S. And now he's followed it up with a bonna fide American mainstream movie, THE ROAD.
I'm admittedly a little late coming to THE ROAD. The movie came out last year of course and the book by Cormac McCarthy several years before that. I remember seeing a lot of people reading the book and being told about it, thinking it was something I might like, and then pretty much forgetting about it. The film version, likewise, sparked my interest, but not enough to go see it in theaters. Admittedly, had I realized Hillcoat was the director, I probably would have checked it out sooner. Although I've seen only two (GHOSTS...OF THE CIVIL DEAD and THE PROPOSITION) of his three other films, I found both of those movies quite powerful and engaging and certainly count Hillcoat among the increasingly few filmmakers whose new films I anticipate.
Anyway, I've finally seen THE ROAD and found it a worthy addition to John Hillcoat's ouvre. It's the sort of brutal, unsettling picture that the filmmaker specializes in, and although it lacks some of the gut churning rawness of GHOSTS...OF THE CIVIL DEAD, it may be his most effective film, because it plays on such as universal fear as the end of the world. In this respect, THE ROAD comes from a pretty interesting cinematic lineage. Apocalypse films first emerged in the 50's and 60's, at first largely as b-pictures like Arch Oboler's FIVE, Roger Corman's DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1955) and Ray Milland's PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! (1962). These were earnest, if at times hysterical films, and eventually they led to more mainstream interpretations of the end of the world such as THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1959) and ON THE BEACH (also 1959). Cornel Wilde's NO BLADE OF GRASS (1970) combined some the seriousness of earlier productions with a decidedly violent edge. The serious vein of apocalypse films continued from the into the 80's with THE DAY AFTER (1983), TESTAMENT (1983) and THREADS (1984), though easily the films on the subject that inspired the most interested were the action oriented MAD MAX (1979) and its sequel THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981) (both from Australia), which inspired countless imitations (many from Italy). Amongst these many subgenres, there are also a handful of worthwhile one-off oddities, inlcuding Brian Trenchard Smith's DEAD END DRIVE-IN (from Australia) and Jim Stanley's HARDWARE, as well as George A. Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD, which brings the end of the world into a horror setting straight out of EC Comics.
Of all these types of films, THE ROAD falls somewhat squarely in the middle. It is a serious film, and a realistic film, but it speculates a postapoctalyptic scenario that is loaded with considerable danger, hence moments of cinematic action and suspense, though this is decidedly not an action or suspense picture. The primary threat, as is often the case in these films, is other survivors. In THE ROAD, the main unnamed character and his unnamed son travel the road at risk from roaming gangs of cannibals and individual scavengers, all bent on survival at any cost. Not only is this a speculative look at the limits of man's humanity under extreme duress (a reoccurring theme throughout the film) but in some ways it hold up a mirror to the baser aspects of preapocalyptic social mores, the self-centeredness and aggression of late capitalism.
In these respects and several others, THE ROAD is a rich, multilayered piece, grinding upon already present dread and anxiety underneath a science-fiction-ish veneer. The result is highly effective, moving, powerful, owing in large part to the humanity imbued upon the lead character by Hillcoat and always reliable actor Viggo Mortenson. In short, this is a richly textural work that speaks to our fears as well as our humanity, and is a film that should be seen.