Thursday, June 17, 2010

It's the End of the World as We Know It: THE ROAD and THE BOOK OF ELI

Two recent Blu-ray and DVD releases, The Road and The Book of Eli, use the post-apocalyptic world as a return to the aesthetics of the Western. Instead of dusty plains of promise and danger, we have gray, oppressive landscapes which overwhelm in their vast emptiness that is punctuated only with sharp, crumbling reminders of the way things used to be. They set up struggles to survive while asking why it would be worth doing so, what the world would have to offer in such horrible circumstances.

The Road is based on Cormac McCarthy’s brutal masterpiece which had prose so brittle and hard that I could almost hear the keys of a typewriter pounding out each word. Director John Hillcoat also helmed 2005’s The Proposition, a western set in the Australian Outback which foregrounded brutality, lingering on violence while refusing to glamorize, a technique typified by the moment where a gunshot pulls off half of an Aborigine’s face. Hillcoat uses similar skills here while tracking a man and his son as they make their way to the coast mere years after the unspecified cataclysm that reduced the world to rubble and ash. They have a small glimmer of hope, but it quickly becomes clear that refuge from the world’s newfound horrors will be hard, if not impossible.

Viggo Mortensen is raspy and gaunt. He’s affecting as he tries to protect his son’s childhood innocence while keeping him acutely aware of the dangers they could face at any moment, not just from the harsh, unforgiving landscape of ruins and the scarcity of food, but also from the nomadic bands of cannibalistic thieves that prey on the weak in a last-ditch effort to delay their own deaths by bringing about the deaths of others. Of great importance is the attention given to the father’s gun, and the somber acknowledgement of the low number of bullets in his possession.

As the son, Kodi Smit-McPhee is Mortensen’s equal: even thinner, even paler, and even more frighteningly fragile. They share the screen by themselves for most of the film, always moving, always scavenging for food in abandoned houses and burnt-out cars. The imagery is purposefully rough, carefully composed to look harsh in its portrayal of world gone unfathomably wrong. The father and son’s monotony of hunger and pain is broken only by brief confrontations, violent and creepy, with the starving cannibals. In a particularly moving sequence, they have an encounter with a more benign individual in the form of a wrinkled, weak, and staggering old man (the great Robert Duvall) who fakes dementia in hope that it will give him meager protection against those who would harm him.

There are also brief, misguided flashbacks to Charlize Theron as Mortensen’s wife and Smit-McPhee’s mother. It should be moving and painful, but they’re too clumsily written and awkwardly spaced. The film is also the victim of clumsy dialogue at times and a score of tinkling strings that attempt to make up for the dialogue by underlining subtext with unwelcome force. What works so well on the page becomes numbing and monotonous in sluggish and repetitive ways. But the film has a disquieting power, a haunted hopelessness that lingers.

The Book of Eli is pulpier, with a slick and fluid camera that the Hughes brothers (of Menace II Society and From Hell) use to compose vivid imagery that pops with B-movie flair. Like The Road, it features a man walking across the ruins of our culture, though in this movie it has been 30 years since the unspecified devastation occurred. This time, it’s Denzel Washington struggling to survive, though he gets to wield a large knife and protect a dusty, leatherbound volume. He stumbles into a small neo-frontier town which is held under the tight grip of its megalomaniacal mayor. The mayor sizes up Eli and determines that he needs to get that book. It is the Bible, after all.

This is a film filled with actors chomping on scenery and strutting about inhabiting their roles with great relish, especially Gary Oldman as the mayor and Mila Kunis, as his daughter, looking much more stunning and scrubbed than the film’s world should allow. There’s also a string of great evocative supporting roles filled by the likes of Tom Waits, Jennifer Beals, Frances de la Tour, and Michael Gambon. They all seem to know they’re in a slightly goofy western transposed into a dusty apocalyptic wasteland and act accordingly.

Washington and Oldman clash over the book as two of the only literate individuals left in the world. Denzel is looking to kindle his small spark of mankind’s long-lost culture. Oldman wants to take advantage of the Bible’s ability to be warped into a tool to control and persuade a populace. What keeps the movie from turning into a broad silly mess about fighting over a book, or worse still, a story about how only the Bible can save us, or even worse, The Postman, is the way the conflict becomes a parable of sorts about the power of the written word. There’s something kind of thrilling about a movie that pits a sort of warrior-monk devoted to close readings against a horde of anti-intellectuals led by a man whose only interest in knowledge is in the way it can be twisted to fit his ambitions.

Even though there are moments of great action, including an incredible siege that’s a small masterpiece of sound design, the moment that stands out is when Kunis looks at Washington a simply says “teach me.” Sure, it’s a pulpy B-movie and unashamedly so. (After all, it has a prison cell improbably decorated with a poster for the post-apocalyptic cult classic A Boy and His Dog). But this is a film that gets its biggest thrill from the hope that humans will always yearn to learn, ending with a sort of Fahrenheit 451 conclusion that encourages savoring stories, no matter how goofy.

The seriously grim The Road is somber and sluggish and the seriously silly The Book of Eli is more conventionally entertaining. Which is better? It’s hard to say and it doesn’t matter. Despite their surface similarities in setting these are two films using similar starts to work towards different goals. They’re two different approaches to similar material, but what they share is an interest in exploring human strength and mankind’s capacity for survival. They take us past modern anxieties to show us that things could be a whole lot worse. If we’re not careful, we could all be suddenly thrust into a sick Western.

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