Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

The Road

Review Date: 11-30-09

Release Date: 11-25-09

Runtime: 112 min.

Period: Future, post-apocalypse

Costume Designer: Margot Wilson

The Road is a film based on the 2006 novel by Cormac McCarthy. Set in post-apocalyptic America, it is the story of a father and son’s journey through a desolate wasteland, literally and figuratively. Thematically, the film deals with one’s purpose in life, the reason for living, and our interdependence – not only on our ecosystem, but also on each other. This movie is difficult to watch, but it is profoundly moving.

The film takes place in “real-time” several years after an unnamed cataclysmic event destroys most living things on earth. We flash back occasionally to the days before the apocalypse, and we meet The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife, The Woman (Charlize Theron), in their rural idyll. These flashbacks are highly saturated in  color, favoring golds, greens and reds – vibrant colors that emphasize the richness of life. We witness the day of the cataclysmic event – and we see that The Woman is pregnant.

After the apocalypse, The Woman’s water breaks. She voices displeasure at the prospect of bringing a child into a world that offers no future. She talks of killing herself, but soon enough she is in labor and delivers a baby boy.

The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) develops into a sensitive child. Afraid of being raped, killed and/or eaten by cannibals, and frustrated with life’s broken promise, The Woman walks out into the freezing night air dressed only in a t-shirt, committing passive suicide. She pleads with The Man to take The Boy and go south, to the ocean, where the climate will be warmer and their prospects (hopefully) improved.

And this is where we meet The Man and The Boy. They are wandering the countryside, looking for the coast. They push a small shopping cart and sleep where they can, hiding from militia-like gangs, thugs, thieves and “bad guys” who, in the absence of law, have created a free-for-all environment, where it is every man for himself. And yes, that means rape and cannibalism.

At one point in the film, The Man and The Boy find an abandoned rural house with a fully stocked bomb shelter/cellar. Here they are able to bathe, change clothes (taking new garments from the abandoned house), and eat real food from the stockpile in the cellar.

What this means for the costumes is that, with the exception of the pre-apocalypse (flashback) costumes, everyone wears the same articles of clothing for the “real-time” portion of the film. The Man and The Boy change once, at the rural house, but that’s it.

The costumes were absolutely beautiful in this film. The aging and dying were superbly realized. If you can believe it, the costume crew was: designer, supervisor, and 3 costumers… and then NINE ager-dyers. At least that’s how the credits roll. What does this tell you? The film is spare on actors (most scenes have no more than three actors) but the bulk of the costume department’s job was to age, dye, distress, and make grimy! Take a look at this – it’s fantastic work.

The costume color palette is tightly controlled in the film – the “real-time” storyline exists in total absence of color. The palette here is grey, brown, black, and more grey. The colors in the flashbacks are lovely golds, blues and creams, with accents of red thrown in the production design. The contrast between the two worlds could not be more striking.

The Man’s costumes are thickly layered, reflecting the cold temperature. The atmosphere has a thick layer of ash preventing the sun’s rays from truly warming the earth. Mortensen’s thin frame is bundled up like the Michelin man, and most of the time we see him in the crustified brown down jacket that comprises his outermost layer. The layers underneath the jacket are aged appropriately to reflect the wear that those pieces would bear – heavily soiled on the cuffs, zipper placket and hood. NOT heavily aged on the back, elbows, sleeves, etc, because those pieces are never/seldom worn as outer layers by themselves, so they don’t reflect the distress and age like the outer layer (the down jacket) does.

The Boy is pretty heartbreaking. In the beginning of the film, The Woman wears what looks like a (possibly hand-knit, possibly cashmere) cream-colored beanie. It’s soft and feminine, and makes her look angelic, even when she is at her depressed and defeated worst, post-apocalypse. When we cut to “real-time”, the boy wears the hat consistently. It is his way of holding on to his mother, and even though the beanie is dirty and pilled, he will not abandon it. His thin frame makes his clothes look like sagging bread dough – nothing fits him; everything is too baggy, dilapidated and shabby.

Along the way, they meet an elderly gent, The Old Man (a barely recognizable Robert Duvall). The father and son take him in for a night and feed him dinner. The Old Man’s costume is remarkable – his shoes are made of cardboard and string – and there are loving close-ups of this costume detail. I couldn’t help but wonder how many pairs of these makeshift shoes they had to construct, given the work the actor needed to perform while wearing them. Details like this bring the story to life.

Along the way, The Man and The Boy have to deal with cannibalistic militias/gangs, most of whom are dressed for business within the color palette of the apocalypse. Take a look at this band of hoodlums. It may seem odd that some of these guys wear masks and others don’t (are the masks required for breathing? disguising identity?), but the variation in look among this group works really well to flesh out the idea of who they are. Seeing a group of several guys with different self-defense or armor ideas in their costumes serves to influence the audience into understanding their purpose as a group – the more paraphernalia you see, the more your brain takes it in that this represents the group, and makes them even more menacing as a collective unit. You will see examples of this in practically every movie that has a gang in it, whether it’s pirates, East LA gangsters, or an angry peasant mob. The collective visual effect of the individual details (ski mask, guns, a guy missing a limb, carrying an axe, respirator mask, machine gun, rifle, etc), are much more menacing as a unit than if everyone looked the same.

The Man and The Boy encounter a desperate man, The Thief (Michael K. Williams), as they reach the coast. They strip him of his clothing, and it is here that we see the real beauty of these costumes. Layer by layer, the clothing comes off this poor man, until we see that he wears a black plastic bag in between some of his garments. This is very clever, and very true of people (even today) who are homeless. The plastic serves to keep out wind and rain, and it is a perfect, perfect detail in this film. Further, there is a scene where The Man takes off one layer of his socks to reveal plastic bags underneath, and additional socks under the plastic. It’s unclear whether or not these details were part of the script, but they were breathtaking to see as part of the costumes. Well done!

The film is hard to watch because of the depressing subject matter, and almost impossible to watch at times due to the implied human cruelty on screen. There are a few scenes that turned my stomach, frankly, and I watch The First 48 to unwind. This is not a film for kids, and it might take you out, emotionally, for the rest of the night.

The performances are outstanding, and we are taken for a very deep journey with father and son. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it is worth sitting through some of the more depressing bits. Thank you credits at the end indicated help from Cabela’s and Carhartt, which is encouraging and noteworthy, since so many multiples of these costumes were required. When you shoot a film day after day, week after week, and the actors wear the same clothing day after day, week after week, you’d better have loads of multiples so that you can do a bit of laundry in between!

I really loved this movie, though I can’t say that I enjoyed it, necessarily. To watch the depths to which we humans can sink is miserable. The film ends on a relatively uplifting note, leaving the audience with an encouraging, though not redemptive, promise. I hope that the film finds its crowd and does well, but given our current depressed economic climate, audiences may gravitate toward lighter, fluffier, less meaningful fare. It might be depressing, but The Road is a great film. See it.

— KMB

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