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Knight at the Movies: The Road; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2009-11-25

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When the world goes boom, I want Viggo Mortensen to be my dad. Who's better to keep your spirits up in the hideous post-apocalyptic afterlife, 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 he's mastered. This is perhaps the greatest of those roles. ( He's simply identified as The Father. ) Mortensen—who, in playing heroes light and dark, 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. The ladies and the gay men love him and pretty much everyone else does, too. I bet the guy even turns off his cell phone in movie theaters.

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 but depressing ) , the Father does his best to instill hope and courage in the Son. "Keep carrying the fire inside you" he urges.

The film roams from episode to episode but never really seems to get anywhere. Part of this is because the kid—all big, wet eyes; pouty lower lip; and skittishness—doesn't seem to have learned much about survival, and the Father's overprotectiveness and anxiety become 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 Mortensen, bearded and dressed in rags, pulling that damn cart—literally becoming Father Courage—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 is he whining!?!"

As the pair near 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 the dad's innate morality to heart. 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.

With all that bleakness in that post-apocalyptic nightmare, you gotta give us hope and a chance at redemption, the audience insists—and, phony as that message might be ( or not, depending on your own inner mantra ) , The Road delivers on that promise.

Film notes:

—Hannah Free is back by popular demand Nov. 27-Dec. 3 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. One of the exceedingly rare lesbian-themed movies to get a feature release, Hannah Free, based on Claudia Allen's award-winning play and starring Sharon Gless in a commanding performance, the movie was shot in Chicago ( primarily at the home of Windy City Times Publisher Tracy Baim, who also executive-produced ) by a mostly female cast and crew. This is yet another opportunity to see Gless¬†give a bravura performance¬†in this moving personal lesbian romantic drama. See www.siskelfilmcenter.org or www.HannahFree.com .

—Get out your nun's habits, girls! It's time for the Music Box's annual Thanksgiving weekend treat—the return of Sing-A-Long Sound of Music. For the fifth year audiences will have the fun of watching the Rogers & Hammerstein musical classic ( 1965's Best Picture Oscar winner ) with Julie Andrews as Maria, the kindly singing nun-turned-nanny-turned-Baroness Von Trapp who flees the Nazis along with her chirping stepkids and stern but loving husband, Christopher Plummer as the baron. Costumes—including those made out of chintz drapes—are encouraged ( and, yes, there will be a costume contest and goodie bags for audience members as well ) . It plays Nov. 27-29, and advance tickets are available; see www.musicboxtheatre.com .

—Queer writer-director Todd Haynes, who helped kick start the new queer cinema movement with his controversial film Poison, has gone to create one fascinating genre-based movie after another. I think that Far From Heaven, his 2002 homage to Douglas Sirk's 1950s melodrama All That Heaven Allows, is his best work and should have gotten Julianne Moore a Best Actress Oscar. Moore plays the strapped in, upper-crust suburban wife of advertising executive Dennis Quaid, who is struggling with his homosexual urges. Enter a handsome African-American gardener ( played with great subtlety by Dennis Haysbert ) into this tale of stifled life in the burbs, '50s style, along with a host of wonderful supporting actors headed by the miraculous Patricia Clarkson—and you've got the elements of what I think are a genuine American classic; it's certainly in the queer top 10. The film's authentically recreated period sets and costumes, Edward Lachman's gorgeous cinematography and Elmer Bernstein's pitch-perfect final score ( dripping with pathos and heavy on the strings ) add to the powerful spell of this movie. An archival print will be shown. It creens Tuesday, Dec. 1, at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State; see www.siskelfilmcenter.org .

—Fish Out of Water, Ky Dickens' entertaining and insightful documentary that takes on—and debunks—the seven Biblical passages that have often been interpreted as condemning homosexuality, will screen on Wed., Dec. 2, at Columbia College's Film Row Cinema, 1104 S. Wabash, at 7:30 p.m. Dickens, a local filmmaker who participated in the lively New Queer Cinema panel discussion as part of Reeling, and her crew will be present for a post-screening discussion. Fish Out of Water was Reeling's documentary centerpiece screening, and sold out the Music Box during the fest. This return engagement is a rare opportunity to catch the film on the big screen and—best—it's free! Call 312-369-8829 or visit www.colum.edu/criticalencounters.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter Web site.


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