The film ‘The Road’ is one of the darkest things I’ve seen. For frightfulness it easily tops those films in the horror canon like The Shining, for me. I suppose you wouldn’t call it a horror exactly, perhaps because of the fact that the malevolent force at work is straightforwardly human, making it more horrible than horrifying. Mostly it’s an effort to picture the worst conceivable state of disorder and depravity humankind could arrive at. In the movie (and the book presumably, though I haven’t read it) people have ended up in such a state because the end of the world has just happened, conveyed largely through sound effects in the background of the opening scenes. It’s not a sudden violent event but a highly sinister unnamed shift in conditions which takes place quite swiftly. There’s the suggestion of some kind of biblical event, but not so that credibility is lost. Intermittent screams and the crackle of fire can be heard across the plains as the central husband and wife face off with each other in the dark of their rural house over what course of action to take. She wants to kill herself like most people are doing and it’s revealed in a flashback later that she did so, by simply walking out the front door into the night.
The film proper opens with the now sickly father and his son on The Road. Humankind is slowly starving to death. The father’s croaky voice-over tells us: ‘Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting’. Being on the road, or The Road, is what the ‘good guys’ ( in the film’s words) do in the spirit of progress, hope, endeavor and stuff. They are just walking through a bleak defoliated landscape of woods and plains, doggedly heading south, occasionally happening upon other people or on abandoned homestead style houses. The trouble is that the people they encounter are more likely than not to be hard-bitten makeshift packs of men and women who, in desperate straits and in the absence of the rule of law, have embraced cannibalism and cruelty with enthusiasm. It’s a very pessimistic imagining but not inconceivable, which gives the movie a real sense of dread. The father has a gun with two bullets in it and spends time training his son how to kill himself if they’re in danger of being taken.
The art department and effects people deserve knighthoods for the huge-scale post-apocalyptic look they achieved. The world couldn’t get more evil or bereft looking. The make-up and costuming people noticeably less impressive work however. They stray a bit too far into toothless red-neck features territory for the ‘bad guys’, and dress many of them in anachronistic tattered long coats and fingerless gloves. I think they wanted a gothic ghoulishness (which isn’t a good idea to begin with), but it looks a bit dressing-up-cabinet amateur.
The sheer horribleness carries it through though. A list of the nasty things people do to each other in the film would be excitement enough for me almost, if you know what I mean. I actually flicked through the book in a friend’s house once to locate the scenes that particularly made me go ‘Jesus Christ’. Number one, and still terrible, is when the father breaks open a locked cellar door in what he takes to be an abandoned house to discover by matchlight a roomful of groaning emaciated figures, laying in their own excrement on the concrete floor, missing arms here, legs there. The father realises what he and his son might be facing and violently shoves and pushes away one of these people who have desperately tried to grab him. The redneck clan returns while they’re emerging from the cellar and they manage to get upstairs panicked but unseen, where the father holds the gun in his son’s mouth in readiness, and with only one bullet left, while the soundtrack roars with some terrible synth. They manage to make a break for it out a ground floor window when the rattle of the cellar door causes a distraction. They hide in a bush close to the house until nightfall because they know they’ll been seen running across the empty landscape. It cuts to night and they stand up to get away to the sounds of a woman screaming in agony and the shouts of her assailants and just before the scene cuts, a giggle. Not an ideal scenario, that’s for sure.