Hitting ‘The Road’ with Director John Hillcoat

Birds are chirping, the sun is shining and leaves rustle gorgeously in the breeze. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ woeful piano score tinkles as director John Hillcoat frames the perfect face of Charlize Theron, and then cuts to the movie star profile of Viggo Mortensen, in The Road’s opening moments. All’s right with the world. Flowers are in full bloom. Everything seems clean and crisp. But going into the film, you should know that these first images are but a flashback of a bygone time in the narrative.

Within minutes, Hillcoat presents The Man (Mortensen) grimy, in a sleeping bag with The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee). They are obviously haggard, haunted. All of the color is gone. The leaves and trees have all died and given way to a stark, brutal landscape of hazy grays and browns. “It was a challenge (not working with color) said Hillcoat when we met at the loud, posh Soho Grand Hotel in Manhattan recently. “But the flashbacks were great fun because that was all about finding as much color as we could get.” Throughout the course of The Road, the pair will be searching to recapture that sun-kissed past while dealing with insurmountable odds on their path to the Promised Land.

Something terrible has happened, and something sinister is happening. “The clock stopped at 1:17,” describes the narrator following a cataclysmic event. “I think it was October but I can’t be sure. I haven’t kept a calendar for years.” The Man and The Boy are hunter-gatherers in a post-apocalyptic hell where men roam the streets in gangs. Everything seems dead, yet completely dangerous. The Man has two bullets left in his rusty old revolver and he instructs the child how to position the gun inside his mouth if he ever feels like he’s had enough. This scene of death is juxtaposed with a flashback of difficult childbirth as The Boy is brought into a harsh world. A warning: the film’s startling intensity can be shocking at times – with roving bands of renegade warriors who kidnap the living to feast on and every man for himself in lawless world. “The cannibal jokes were endless,” said Hillcoat of the mood on the set, insisting that working on a heavy drama was infinitely superior to making a comedy. “For me to hang out with Cormac McCarthy and Nick Cave, the humor and storytelling is just great. Give me a comedy, and man, that’s the most miserable, tragic environment. Give me Cormac any day.”

As he similarly did with the excellent The Proposition, director Hillcoat subverts many genre conventions and blends together several modes of cinema to create an exciting, dangerous world. As in The Proposition, the central characters must contend with a harsh geographical backdrop — The Road takes place in the disaster zone that was formerly the United States while The Proposition is set in the barren, unforgiving wastelands of Colonial Australia. Both films take on the trappings of the western, the domestic drama and the post-apocalyptic horror film and are paced with a whip-smart tempo, and both are eventually about destruction and redemption. There is an element distaff, off-beat romanticism featured in both films as well, but in The Road, Hillcoat makes the story more about the passionate bonds of love between a man and his son. “It’s a love story,” said Hillcoat. “He is teaching him what love is. The Boy is born into this hopeless world knowing from that relationship what love is and what’s sensible. And actually, that’s the whole point of the story.”

With The Road, however, Hillcoat offers up a unique take on what it means to survive a disaster when almost everybody else has been swallowed up by it. Author McCarthy (who also wrote the novel No Country for Old Men) chooses to draw his characters as bleak but not yet broken and Hillcoat, along with screenwriter Joe Penhall, continue the novelist’s conversation by asking the pertinent question “why do people keep on going in the face of extreme adversity?” “I had all the guns pointed at me,” said Hillcoat of the challenge presented by the film’s prestigious pedigree. “But Cormac was great about all of that. He understands the medium. He said ‘a film is a film. I’ve done my book; you need to do your film.’ He never asked for a script, and we never offered one. He came to the set, we showed him the finished film but the key was to not focus on this legacy.” While The Man and The Boy keep going through the motions, Theron’s Wife character is markedly changed from the page and becomes an addled, depressed symbol for lost hope in the face of tragedy. “You can empathize with her, it’s not like she was just crazy. I think she makes a hell of an argument,” said Hillcoat. “[Charlize] is stunningly beautiful, but she’s also really powerful in this. She has this bravery, it’s great. We needed that sort of beauty and almost goddess quality. She’s a gutsy woman. By the way, when she was on set during her most harrowing scenes, we never laughed so much. She had the whole crew in stitches.”

The shedding of one’s skin, becoming something new is a recurring theme in the film. There is a mournful shot of The Man letting go of his former life, of his wife’s picture, his wallet, his wedding ring, and his identity. None of these things matter anymore in this new world. The surprising way in which Mortensen plays this scene in such a non-sentimental way, and the physical commitment he brings to the part overall, clearly indicates his status as one of the most adventurous, talented actors working in film today (his contemporaries being, in my mind Edward Norton, Mathieu Amalric and Daniel Day Lewis). The horror as he reflects on his wife’s fate and forges ahead with a new self signals man’s ability to rise from primordial sadness and evil to adapt. You can only beg someone to stay with you so much if they can’t handle the harsh reality and this is what The Man must do with his wife.

Mortensen’s performance is a thing of wonder; he is an actor whose instrument is more finely tuned with each new venture. Using his entire body to signal pain, but particularly wielding his glassy eyes like sharp little weapons, the actor captures a cagey, yet hopeful spirit, a good man in a worst case scenario trying to do what he can to get by. Not unlike the greatest leading men in classic Hollywood westerns, Mortensen is stoic, brimming with quiet fury. He throws himself one hundred and ten percent into a role, it’s very intense,” said Hillcoat. “And it’s an intense role. But that’s also what’s great about him, that hundred and ten percent. There was only one thing that I was irritated with: he was on a diet of chocolate, really dark chocolate and red meat. That’s it. He brought all of these great chocolates from everywhere in the world and shared them with the crew. I’m still addicted to dark chocolate. I can’t get away from it.”

At key moments, Hillcoat’s film resembles the German Romantic paintings The Abbey at the Oakwood and Monk by the Sea, by Caspar David Friedrich, with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Others, Talk to Her) evoking the funereal textures and dour colors of Friedrich’s palette (“He’s an artist” rhapsodized Hillcoat, talking about the cameraman’s work on Pedro Almodovar’s film). In both the paintings and the film, there is a turbulence in the washed-out grays, bruised purples and ashen browns and the tone of Hillcoat’s direction feels painterly, expressive, and Hillcoat cites photographs from recent disasters such as Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and the film The Bicycle Thieves as other visual reference points.

Ultimately, though, The Road is less about style than it is about the triumph of optimism, of trust. If you can have faith that if you can just make it through the day, good things can often follow, even in the worst circumstances. Life is hard. Few of us have it easy, but The Road shows that if those of us who have everything lose it all in a disaster, we can still make it out alive. We can live to fight another day. If we have to do it alone, in a pitiless world, we know it can be done. When we are left alone by those who loved us the most, that’s when our natural instinct to survive kicks in – not even death or the destruction of the world can stop that.

Hillcoat is currently prepping his next feature, written once again by Cave. “It’s a gangster film, its period,” said Hillcoat guardedly, adding that the cast is set to include Shia LaBeouf, Ryan Gosling, and “a couple of others of that caliber.” The Road plays in theaters beginning November 25.