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The Road – And Other Forgotten Treasures for 2009, Part 1

And so it is in the 11th hour that I’ve finally seen John Hillcoat’s The Road. Of all of the films I’ve seen this year, this is the only film that will stay with me throughout my entire life, probably, and the closer I get to death, the more I will think of this story. The Road is Cormac McCarthy’s terrifying, but ultimately hopeful glimpse into the bleak future of a destroyed world. It isn’t so much a cautionary tale about mankind destroying all life on the planet, but more about distilling the human experience down to the essentials. This book is a nightmarish rendering of McCarthy’s deepest fears of being a husband and father – someone there to protect his family no matter what might be coming down the road.

There is a transformation that takes place when one becomes a parent. Suddenly you realize that this little creature you’re holding in your arms is dependent upon you for everything. I had a big dose of this because from the moment I had my daughter I had to be it. There was no father. That meant every sound in the night, every potential fire hazard, every unpaid electric bill, every meal was to come from me. From the time she was a baby I imagined every scenario possible and how I would get out of any potentially dangerous situation.¬† A drowning, a home-invasion robbery, a car accident, a fire – you always scan places to know where the exits are. You are on full-time alert at all times. You can’t think someone else is there to protect you because you are the only one there.

McCarthy’s desire to explore survival and protection of young is at the heart of The Road. ¬† As I dove into that book I recognized the morbid attention on the worst possible thing that could happen and I saw the reason behind it. As I watched the John Hillcoat film, with the astonishing Viggo Mortensen in the lead, I knew that this wasn’t something that was going to go over well with critics. It certainly isn’t at the forefront of the awards race. It’s too morbid. It’s too bleak. It has cannibalism in it, for crying out loud. In the book, it is talked about in McCarthy’s stark language, leaving you alone with your imagination to see it. The film shows you a version of it and it isn’t pretty.¬† There is no doubt The Road is a difficult sit. And there is even less doubt in my mind that the last thing voters are going to want to put in their blu-ray player is this film, especially now, especially today with tens of thousands dead in Haiti. Depressing times call for fantasy more than they do reality. But something that plans on embedding in your soul isn’t something you’re going to necessarily be entertained by.

The main reason to see The Road is much the same reason to read the book – it isn’t the getting there that counts so much. It is what happens at the end. The getting there is proof of a father’s life or death call to duty to protect his son. The end is about the distilled humanity they both retain, even in the bleakest of circumstances. Both endings, in the book and in the film, will tear you apart. But both show that the father has no choice but to hope for the goodness in people to pay off. Our humanity, really, is the only thing that makes us different. In many ways, we can choose to be one of the good guys, or one of the bad guys.

Viggo Mortensen has never been better than he is in The Road. He arguably gives the best male performance of the year, starving himself down to nothing, and finding the terror in his situation. This is something I’ve only seen another actor do once: Adrien Brody in The Pianist. But the movie didn’t get the best reviews, and the film has no buzz, and everyone is pretty much ignoring it. Such is the sleazy group grope of Oscar season. Every year it is the same story. And we know for a fact that the Oscar race is mostly about momentary popularity, not necessarily quality of work. And that’s fine. That’s the game we all play. Even if twenty people voted for Mortensen, that still leaves hundreds of others who won’t. The Oscars are about a time capsule, a snapshot of a moment in time. They aren’t meant to have lasting value. They are meant to be admired and then pasted into a scrapbook to remember 2009 by. But I thought it was worth talking about anyway.

Bright Star and Abbie Cornish – it’s a bit difficult to imagine Abbie Cornish missing a nod for Bright Star. And yet, here we are. The film had no money to advertise with, and I’m going to bet that there are other forces at work keeping Cornish from being “popular” enough to meet the approval of voters. Either most groups hated the film outright, or there is a silly little prejudice at work. Either way, Cornish is a very talented actress and this will hardly be her last opportunity to be recognized for an Oscar.

Diane Kruger in Inglourious Basterds – it was a stroke of luck that the SAG had the smarts to nominate Diane Kruger for Inglourious Basterds. She is most deserving of this accolade. The critics seemed to be enamored with Laurent, but Kruger really gives the other standout performance in the film, along with Christoph Waltz. Kruger has never been this good in a film, and that’s to do, probably, with her speaking in her native tongue. The film comes alive when she is on screen and one gets the sense that, if given the right script, Kruger could really run with this acting thing. Kruger is not likely to be forgotten, but it seems that in the celebration of the film, and Waltz, Kruger is being under-appreciated.