Bleak, brilliant 'Road' deserves an audience
By Robert W. Butler
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
"The Road" may have been my favorite movie of 2009.
Yet it performed miserably at the box office (just $8 million in U.S. ticket sales) and received not one Oscar nomination.
The reason wasn't lack of artistic merit but rather its terrifying subject matter — a starving father and son (Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee) wander a dying Earth, avoiding cannibal gangs and trying to keep the flame of humanity burning.
Few of us wanted to pay $10 for that sort of downer, no matter how good. Maybe "The Road" will fare better on video. It deserves to be discovered by all those who missed it in theaters.
A second viewing of director John Hillcoat's end-of-the-world drama reconfirms my opinion that this is a great, quietly heartbreaking movie, one that can force us to ask how we'd behave in the same circumstances.
The temptation to go all Mad Max and rev up the movie with big action sequences must have been great. But "The Road" is a pitch-perfect study in dramatic restraint. Striving to find a cinematic equivalent for novelist Cormac McCarthy's sparse yet evocative prose, Hillcoat shuns action-driven excitement, instead opting to put his audience in the grasp of an unrelenting dread.
But beneath the ugliness a gentle truth blossoms. An emaciated, dying Mortensen is determined that his son not only survive, but that he retain his innocence, his belief in the innate goodness of humanity. It's the contrast between the horrors they encounter and the boy's enduring faith that makes "The Road" a powerful spiritual experience.
Fun? No. But "The Road" moved me on a level few films have. And for all the grimness of its episodes, the movie ends on a surprisingly optimistic note.
This DVD release offers a handful of deleted scenes (no big deal), a short but illuminating making-of documentary and director Hillcoat's commentary track. He speaks often of his quest to make the film truthful to McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning novel. He describes the search for suitably devastated landscapes (such as the dead forest surrounding Washington state's volcanic Mount St. Helens).
He's particularly proud of his performers. Mortensen, he reveals, practically slept in the grimy clothing he wears in the movie; at one point, the actor was mistaken for a homeless man and thrown out of a shop.
Young Smit-McPhee, Hillcoat recalls, was uncanny in his ability to intuitively hit just the right emotion for each scene.
There's a danger that in promoting a film like this a critic makes it seem like cinematic spinach: "It's good for you."
Whatever. Eat it. It is good for you.
Few of us have visited Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water House. Yet we recognize it from photographs. Erick Bricker's documentary "Visual Acoustics" is about photographer Julius Shulman, who died last year at age 98.
Fascinated by modern architecture, Schulman had the ability to zero in on just the right angle, to emphasize a building's most characteristic features. His photos became the conduit through which the rest of us experienced these structures.
Beginning in 1936, Shulman befriended and began photographing the work of architects, including Wright, Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, Raphael Soriano and John Lautner. So influential were his images that they defined "California living" — structures of steel and glass, often cantilevered over steep hillsides with panoramic views of Los Angeles.
In a sense, Shulman became an unofficial promoter of the new architecture. His riveting images often made these buildings look better than they did in person.
Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, "Visual Acoustics" is also a lovely study of a man who supported the austerity of these buildings but who lived in the Hollywood hills surrounded by a sprawling, unkempt English garden as far from minimalist modernism as is imaginable.