Knight at the Movies Archives
It's the end of the world as we know it in two vastly different end of the world flicks
When the world goes Boom! I want Viggo Mortensen to be my dad. Who better to keep your spirits up in the hideous post-
apocalyptic after life as pictured in John Hillcoat’s The Road, the adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy epic length tome? Mortensen,
as always, brings grave dimension and inner grace to an Everyman part that he has become so expert at. This is perhaps the
greatest of those roles (he’s simply identified as The Father). Mortensen – who has played heroes light and dark in a series of epics
and indie films and has effortlessly come to embody the best of Us – is soft spoken, loyal to a fault, brainy, literate, artistic, hunky,
sensual, athletic and strong – he’s the ultimate ideal of what a male heterosexual should be. There is enormous tenderness and
thought in his every move and yet he’s also tough when it’s warranted. The ladies and the gay men love him and pretty much
everyone else too – what’s not to love about such a gentle, decent, intelligent heartthrob like this? I bet the guy even turns off his
cell phone in movie theatres.
In The Road Viggo’s character the Father has one goal – to deliver his Son (newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) and himself to the seashore
and presumably safety. Along the way, in this road movie that’s really an anti-road movie; the duo will be tested by the dregs of
humanity (Cannibals! Murderers! Thieves!), diminished by their quest for survival (no medicine, little food) and for the Father, the
haunted memories of life before the Big Boom with gorgeous, piano playing Mother (a terse Charlize Theron playing the realist to
Mortensen’s dream talker) who is no longer on the scene.
Looking like a homeless pair, wandering through the ashes of the post industrial world (the film’s eye popping visuals are stunning
and really, really depressing), the Father does his best to instill hope and courage in his Son. “Keep carrying the fire inside you” he
urges. But after repeated encounters with a lot of bad stuff the son isn’t so sure. “Are we still the good guys?” he asks. “Of course
we are – always will be,” the Father answers but the reply is tentative, a spark in the dark morass of the devastation around him.
The Father tries in his heart of hearts to believe it, too. But when the duo come across an old house with a piano intact, his tight
resolve crumbles and puts him over the edge emotionally and he weeps copiously. This heartbreaking scene – the confluence of the
memory of his wife tied to music spoke to my soul (I also love that Viggo’s not afraid to cry) and this scene is the emotional
highlight of the film. I do wish the melody composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis was a mite more memorable, however and I
would have preferred director Hillcoat to have gone with a junky snippet of something from our pop culture jukebox – the moment
would have resonated even more I think.
The film roams from episode to episode – the discovery of a Coke the highlight of a day, a chance encounter with a nearly
unrecognizable Robert Duvall as a blind man (a moving scene), a really bad day when the pair are trapped in a house with
cannibals, a hidden cache of food, the decision to bathe near a gushing waterfall – but never really seems to get anywhere. Part of
this is because the kid – all big, wet eyes and pouty lower lip and skittishness – doesn’t seem to have learned much about survival
and the Father’s over protectiveness and anxiety becomes overwhelming (plus, he starts getting sick). When the pair are reduced to
putting their belongings in a cart, the kid can’t even help pull it along.
So there’s Viggo, bearded and dressed in rags, pulling that damn cart – literally becoming Father Courage (albeit with just the one
child to protect) – a vivid anti-war symbol as surely as Brecht’s famous heroine. The quest for spiritual fulfillment, inherent in the
material and the lessons in the simplistic homilies imparted from Father to Son, the urge to apply metaphor to the miserable
wasteland all fall into place for the audience with this image. Momentarily, one is moved but then you think, “Why can’t the kid help
him a little? Why hasn’t he learned some basic survival stuff by this point? Why is he whining!?!”
As the pair nears their destination the Father has worn himself out emotionally and physically and the audience has been guided to
transfer their identity from him to the kid who has taken to heart the dad’s innate morality (especially in an incident in which they go
to retrieve their stolen stuff from a desperate thief). It’s a noble effort on the part of the writer as is the end, which, to put it kindly,
is way too pat but underlines the father’s “Carry the fire” mantra.
All that bleakness, that post apocalyptic nightmare – you gotta give us hope, a chance at redemption, the audience insists – and
phony or not as that message might be (depending on your own inner mantra), The Road delivers on that promise.
More End of the World Stuff: Not satisfied with taking out most of the world in previous outings, this time director-writer Roland
Emmerich goes for the full enchilada in 2012, a doomsday thriller that’s an exquisite example of disaster porn. Surely there is no
other genre (well, perhaps camp) that is as satisfyingly junky and fun than the disaster genre? And as the modern day disaster flick
has aged, technology has kept it a go to genre for audiences who love nothing more than seeing entire cities washed away by
floods, flattened by earthquakes and asteroids, spewed over by raging volcanoes, or encased in winters icy death grip by subzero
John Cusack (as a doomsday novelist moonlighting as a chauffeur to a Russian billionaire – really!) heads an improbable
assemblage of varying talents (Amanda Peet, Woody Harrelson, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, et al) playing an improbable
assemblage of characters who engage in one of movie audience’s favorite games – “Who will survive?” As various characters plunge
to their deaths or cling tenaciously to life during the intermittent spectacular set pieces, Chiwitel Ejiofor (who played the gay drag
queen in Kinky Boots) pleads for humanity while character actor Oliver Platt as the meanie realist argues to let the unlucky shove off
the Mortal Coil. Gay characters, as usual for the genre, are nonexistent (though I got a distinct homo vibe from a Chinese
2012, the end of the world movie to end ‘em all, turns out to be a sort of cross between the sci-fi camptacular When Worlds Collide and
every previous Emmerich movie. At 2 ½ hours it’s too long but provides enough guilty pleasures to balance its waterlogged, phony
Expanded Edition of 11-25-09 Windy City Times KATM Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
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