Ease on Down “The Road”

“The Road.” John Hillcoat, director. Dimension Films, 2009, 110 minutes.
Reviewed by Jo Ann Skousen
“The Road,” based on Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same name (see my review in Liberty, January-February 2009), opens with a sunlit close-up of a beautiful garden. A radiant, smiling woman (Charlize Theron), sunlight and domesticity personified, clips a flower as the camera pans out to reveal a lovely, sun drenched home. But the scene ends in the blink of an eye. A haggard, grizzled Man (Viggo Mortensen) awakes with a start from this delightful dream to the nightmare of his bleak, post-apocalyptic existence. A permanent cloud of smog and ash now hides the sun. Trees are bare. Vegetation is gone. Nothing remains but bleak, gray, hardened men and women struggling to survive.
The Man and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) sleep fitfully in caves and underbrush, always listening for marauding strangers who would rape the boy, then eat them both if given half a chance. Their gun is always at the ready, not just to kill the enemy but to turn it on themselves if they should be caught. Anarchy is not the road to prosperity and harmony, at least not according to this film.
The Man and the Boy are traveling along what is left of a highway, heading for the Atlantic coast. We don’t know why they are heading for the ocean or what they expect to find there, only that they are indefatigable in their determination to reach the shore.
This film strips away all the non-essentials and explores what really matters in life: a place to sleep, food to eat, and most of all, a relationship to nurture. In many ways, “The Road” is a metaphor for the need to have a goal, a purpose in life, a reason to get up and keep moving. For the Man, that purpose is to protect his son from the evil around him and teach him what he needs to know in order to survive on his own someday. As he tells the Boy, “I will kill anyone who touches you. Because that’s my job.”
For the Boy, the goal is different. He doesn’t merely want to survive; he wants to be “one of the good guys.” For the man, being “one of the good guys” is simple: “We don’t eat people. No matter what.” For the boy, it requires more. Somehow, instinctively, despite being born into a world where no one is kind, he wants to share food, find a friend, be kind to strangers. His job is “to carry the fire” and bring hope to a hopeless condition.
If Anton Chigurh in McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” is the personification of evil (see my review, Liberty, May 2008), the Boy in “The Road” is the personification of goodness. No one has taught him to “play nice” or say “please” and “thank you.” He has grown up in a system of kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, steal or be stolen from. Yet he is angry when his father refuses to give an old man (Robert Duvall) a can of food, and horrified when his father forces a man who has stolen their goods (Michael K. Williams) not only to return their property but to strip and give them his own clothes as well. In both cases, the Boy wins out.
Despite its bleak setting and sometimes horrifying scenes, “The Road” offers a powerful message of hope, love, goodness, and individual self-determination. It remains true to the novel (one of my all-time favorites) and translates surprisingly well to the screen. Mortensen and Smit-McPhee demonstrate a deeply believable bond as the father and son, showing emotion that never turns treacly. Small roles– played by Duvall, Williams, and Guy Pearce as the Veteran–are made large by their deeply resonant performances. This film is a gem.

The Changeling

Will the Real Clint Eastwood Please Come Back?
“The Changeling,” directed by Clint Eastwood. Universal/Imagine, 141 minutes.
You’ve probably seen previews for “The Changeling,” with Angelina Jolie pounding her breast and wailing, “I want my son back!” before she is carted off to a psychiatric prison ward. The previews promise corruption in the police department, a mad psychiatrist, and a tantalizing mystery, all in one film. Who wouldn’t be interested?
Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a single mother who comes home from work one evening to an empty house. She has no idea where her son has gone. No one in the neighborhood has seen him. He hasn’t eaten his lunch. It is every mother’s worst nightmare. Five months later the police find a boy in Illinois and bring him back to be united with his mother–but she doesn’t recognize him. When she complains to the police and begs them to continue their search, the police chief has her committed.
In one sense, the film delivers on its premise. Jolie’s character does fight the system and expose corruption at several levels, including a loophole that allows the police to incarcerate unruly whistle-blowers without a trial–sort of a precursor to Gitmo. The film reveals the perversity of a system in which it is virtually impossible to prove one’s sanity. Since the doctor has deemed her unbalanced for not recognizing her son, the only way she can get out of the mental institution is to sign a false statement that she now accepts that he is her son. But signing that confession would demonstrate that she had indeed not recognized him, thereby proving that she was mentally unbalanced…the classic Catch 22.
It’s a frightening issue, one that hasn’t gone away: many states have an equivalent of Florida’s Baker Act, under which a person can be committed to 30 days in a mental institution without recourse, if a psychologist deems the person dangerous to himself or others. (And when the psychologist is employed by the police department, it’s pretty easy to predict whether the detainee will be so deemed.) My own daughter came frighteningly close to being Bakered when she was 17, so I know how quickly it can happen. (See “Splish Splash I Was Taken to Jail,” Liberty, November 2003.)
But previews are supposed to do more than just give an idea of what a film is about. They also need to foretell its tone and subject matter accurately, so the viewer can decide when and whether to see it. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a comedy, sometimes for a thriller, sometimes for a romance or a drama. I don’t want to know the whole storyline in advance, but I do want to know what emotions are going to be piqued before I go to a movie. And that’s where I felt duped by Eastwood this time.
So let me warn you here: the official previews–and also the reviews I’ve read–leave out the brutal second storyline, the one that shows the horrifying fate of 20 kidnapped boys. I felt completely blindsided by the grisly side of this film. Eastwood presents it masterfully–the strategically placed “smoking gun” as the detective searches the old farmhouse (in this case the “gun” is a scattering of hatchets and cleavers), the suspense-laden soundtrack, the close-up shot of the detective’s untapped cigarette ash demonstrating his own horror as he interviews a young witness. Great film-making. But come on, Clint. Couldn’t you have warned me?
The main storyline, about Collins’ victory over the police force and the psychiatric institution, seems incongruous in light of what happened to those boys. How could a mother smile about sticking it to the police department when she has imagined her son calling out for her in terror before he was hacked to pieces? I found nothing to cheer about.
I also found it hard to accept how unkind Jolie’s character is to the boy masquerading as her son. He’s a little boy, for heaven’s sake. Something terrible must have happened to him to make him try to pass himself off as someone else. Couldn’t we offer him a little compassion? I felt the same way about the young witness to the crime.
But here’s the really strange fact about the film: despite its horrifying storylines, despite Eastwood’s gorgeous sets and attention to detail, and despite Jolie’s constant tears and emotion, I felt strangely detached. It seems as though Eastwood comes at the story from all different directions, but never with any conviction beyond wanting to film it beautifully. As a result, it falls flat.
Moreover, for all her tears and agony, Jolie herself is emotionally detached. Notice I use the actress’s name, and not her character’s. That’s because she never connects with Christine Collins. Watch the best actresses in the business–women like Meryl Streep, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis. Notice how they react in a scene with their whole bodies, listening intently to the other character, seeming to gather their thoughts spontaneously, from the situation, not from a script. By contrast, I’m always aware of Angelina Jolie pretending to be someone else. She’s too aware of how the camera will capture her profile, her lips, her tear-stained makeup. She’s not afraid to look grimy, but even then she seems to be thinking, Look at me, see how I throw myself into this scene! Now give me another Oscar!
In short, Eastwood can go to bed early on Oscar night this year. After directing a string of remarkable successes (“Mystic River,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Million Dollar Baby”), he produced a real stinker with “The Changeling.” Can someone take this changeling back and find the real Clint?

Bright Star: An Ode to Keats

“Bright Star.” Jane Campion, director. BBC Films, 119 minutes.
Reviewed by Jo Ann Skousen
Like a comet that flashes across the sky and is gone, John Keats lived only 25 years. Panned by critics during his lifetime, his poems survived to become iconic of the romantic period. With its emphasis on mythology, the beauty of nature, and the primacy of pure emotion, Keats’s poetry evokes great truth and intense feelings. Yet often it accomplishes these large purposes by attending to the minute details of the life around us.
The essence of this poetic style is brought gorgeously to the screen by Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” a film about the passionate relationship of John Keats (Ben Whishaw) with his neighbor, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Today’s movies ordinarily try to portray the wild abandon of love through the impatient ripping of clothes and the lusty merging of bodies. But Campion presents this love story by means of its small details–the urgent longing of locked eyes, the gentle entwining of fingers, the wafting of a breeze beneath a skirt, and in one surprisingly erotic scene, the pressing of a furtive finger against a wrist beneath an organza cuff. The characters’ romantic obsession transcends physicality; in fact, when Fanny says she will “do anything” for him, Keats turns her down, responding, “I have a conscience.”
Unable to earn a living through his poetry, Keats relies on the financial largesse of his patron and friend, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider). Charles is “Engels” to Keats’s “Marx,” praising him, pushing him, protecting him, and supporting him. Conflict arises between Fanny and Charles as they compete for Keats’s attention. Charles wants Keats to spend all his time writing; Fanny wants him to spend time teaching her about literature. Her love for Keats is intellectual as well as emotional, and she is happy just to be in the room with him while he works.
Fanny, too, is an artist, although her craft is the homely kind that often goes unnoticed and unappreciated. She is an accomplished fashion designer, her page a bolt of cloth and her pen a needle making neat little stitches across a seam. Campion reminds us that women’s arts were just as beautiful and creative as the more manly pursuits of letters, paint, and marble, though they were never given the same honor and recognition.
In this film, both the costumes and the cinematography are splendid works of art. Each scene is composed with careful attention to lighting, background, and color. Windows open wide to invite nature inside, blossoms float in the spring air, the camera lingers on the two lovers as they share quiet moments together. Yet one of the most stunning scenes is a somber view of the Spanish Steps in Rome, where Keats went to convalesce after contracting tuberculosis, and where he at last succumbed to that disease.
At one point a light from the sky beams down on Fanny’s bosom, a subtle reminder of Keats’s poem “Bright Star.” The speaker of that poem longs to be like the star shining “stedfast” upon his “fair love’s ripening breast.” The poem ends with his desire “to hear her tender-taken breath,/ And so live ever—or else swoon to death.” Keats did swoon in death, but his poetry lives on, “a thing of beauty [that] is a joy forever.” The film is a fitting tribute to the poetry and the life that made it.