Monday, 9 February 2009

The Road to nowhere?

There’s an empty place setting at this year’s awards nominee banquet. Missing from the Slumdog/Winslet/Ledger group hug is John Hillcoat’s take on the post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel The Road.
The film was originally slated for a November 2008 release, easily putting it into the Oscars running and tipped by many as a serious contender, but has instead remained firmly ‘in post production’ on IMDB and currently still has no firm release date in 2009. While the no-show can be partly put down to the financial turmoil at Weinstein who decided to put all their eggs in one basket and back The Reader as their best shot at commercial and awards success this time around, there are arguably some underlying wider cultural reasons why now is not the time for a movie about the collapse of Western Civilisation as we know it.

At a time when people in the US and around the world are pinning their hopes on the Obama Advent to lead them back from the brink of oblivion, nervy producers are going to be disinclined to push something that offers a glimpse of a possible future world where all of the feared financial, political and environmental collapses have already happened. Or maybe they just feel that the pre-millennial tension and post 9/11 sobriety ‘Armageddon Dollar’ has finally been exhausted. Whatever the case, it’s hard not to feel that a film with such outstanding potential and credentials – Viggo Mortenson working with Hillcoat who’s coming off the back of the much-lauded The Proposition to ride the McCarthy No Country For Old Men book-to-film bounce – is a casualty of downturn-inspired jitters because of the horrors that it presents.

It’s interesting to reflect upon the relationship between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the hugely successful cycle of horror movies produced by Universal Studios at the time. The intention behind these films, and horror fiction and film before and after the Universal cycle, was to bring people back from the brink through a form of engaged escapism. Audiences’ fears were embodied by the fantastical monsters that confronted them on screen and the creatures’ eventual death or destruction encapsulated the desire to see an end to those fears. However some commentators have suggested that part of the success of the 1930s Universal horrors was based on American audiences’ association of the monsters with ‘aliens’ in their midst and their long-held but misconceived belief that immigration lay at the heart of their country’s predicament. Certainly the likes of Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy could be viewed as frightening embodiments of otherness from the Old Country.

The truth is that good horror satisfies through the sublimation of whatever fears each individual audience member brings into the cinema with them, a point that William Freidkin has often made to disavow himself of any subjectivity in relation to the way The Exorcist was and continues to be received. One can only hope that audiences will eventually have a chance to judge for themselves in the case of The Road. The concern is that the current downtime is being used to up the cannibal-holocaust ‘fear of the Other’ quotient and dilute the serious potency of the message. If this is the case we can look forward to a post-Easter/pre-Summer burial for the movie – if we’re lucky, straight-to-DVD hell beckons – and guaranteed invisibility come the 2010 round of gongs. The static placeholder screen at is kind of pointing to this.

In the mean time you could always read the book.

Jez Conolly

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