11/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The (Looonnng and Winding) Road Out of Telluride

This is the fourth in a series of reports from the Telluride Film Festival. The event customarily held over the Labor Day weekend returned for its 36th season September 4-7. Coverage included a quick look at a film screened each night and highlights of some of the group discussions and celebrity appearances.

Monday's sneak review: The Road (Dimension Films and 2929 Productions), which was shown at the Palm immediately following a morning tribute to the film's leading man, Viggo Mortensen.

Running time: 111 minutes.

What's it all about?
So the unemployment rate and health care issues are getting you down? Try living in a post-apocalyptic world, where bad taste (as in cannibalism) is prevalent and fuel and more wholesome foods are not. The traumatic tale focuses on a man (Mortensen) who loses his wife (Charlize Theron, in colorful flashback scenes, brings some much-needed energy). He takes a dark, dreary journey with his young son (you'll see plenty of Kodi Smit-McPhee come awards season) in search of the deep, blue sea. Along the way, they sleep in abandoned cars, munch on crickets by the campfire and keep wondering if they're the good guys. Too bad they couldn't pick up the pace a little. (The two are shown together.)

If reveling in the misery of others in order to forget your own troubles is your idea of a good time, this movie is for you. Just in time for the holiday season, too, since the release date (originally set for 2008) has been pushed back again, shifting from October 16 to November 25, the day before Thanksgiving. It might make you think twice about having that second helping of turkey and dressing, though.

Director: John Hillcoat (The Proposition, To Have and to Hold).

Leading roles: Viggo Mortensen (The Man); Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Boy).

Also appearing: Charlize Theron (Wife); Guy Pearce (The Veteran); Robert Duvall (Old Man).

Telluride take
This film, combined with the Mortensen tribute, was considered the main event of the festival. Non-pass holders standing in the rain were turned away from the Sunday night session, but there were plenty of seats still available in the balcony for the next day's program that began at 9 a.m. And while Hillcoat and the latest boy wonder, Smit-McPhee, were on stage with Mortensen during his opening night interview, they were nowhere to be found Monday.

If filmgoers were upset, they didn't outwardly show it. Maybe they were struggling to keep their eyelids open or having trouble suppressing yawns to notice how depressing this film really is. Literary fans of Cormac McCarthy will be pleased to know the movie pretty much goes by the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, but newbies expecting a cross between I Am Legend and The Road Warrior may be thoroughly disappointed.

Ashen gray skies and landscapes, desolate interstates, crumpled buildings and grumpy old men fill the screen, and "action sequences" are practically nonexistent. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is appropriately moody, but after seeing "The End of the World As We Know It," it's unlikely you'll feel fine. Many in the crowd were sobbing uncontrollably during the screening, and it probably had nothing to do with the switched reel midway through the movie.

What you might not know
During a brief interview as part of the tribute to the Silver Medallion honoree, Mortensen, showing off the same T-shirt (Make Art Not War) he wore in Venice (left), professed his admiration for performers such as Jessica Lange in Frances and Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter. He also admitted his introduction to acting in grade school as the "ass end of a dragon" was humbling, along with his early career in cinema. While wondering what he did wrong to wind up on the cutting room floor in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo and Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift, he said he was able to take something from each experience. Born in New York City 50 years ago, what did the son of a Danish father and an American mother discover? "You can always learn something if you want to."

But after the crowd was treated to clips from his past films such as Witness, A Walk on the Moon, Lord of the Rings and Eastern Promises, Mortensen was clearly ready to take the focus off himself and get back on The Road. "People are waiting for this movie all over the world," he said, while later describing its message as "hopeful."

Referring to "The Man" and "The Boy," Mortensen believes the movie is essentially "a love story between these two characters." And that relationship might ultimately make The Road worth traveling.

Son is shining
If life imitates art, Mortensen most be one proud papa. He heaped praise on Australian 13-year-old Smit-McPhee, who plays his son in the movie. "Everyday he amazed us," Mortensen said. But his eyes really started to sparkle when the subject turned to his own son, 21-year-old Henry, whose mother is Exene Cervenka, the singer-songwriter in X, one of America's ground-breaking punk bands.

He reminisced about how the two of them always saw the summer blockbusters and marveled at how his son at an early age had a keen eye for quality. While everyone else was applauding, Mortensen recalled how Henry dismissed the steamrolling steamship of a movie called Titanic by saying, "It's supposed to be about the boat, not those stupid people."

Fright fest
Historical costume dramas involving literary legends (Bright Star, The Last Station) and more current fare touching on compelling culture clashes (London River, A Prophet) made their mark among the foreign entries at this year's festival. Also, high-profile appearances by Mortensen and Academy Award-winning actors Helen Mirren and Nicolas Cage helped Telluride rebound from last year's lack of star power (Jeff Goldblum? Lauren Graham?). But the surprise sensation had to be the American-made Paranormal Activity, a 99-minute film about things that go bump in the night that was made for $11,000. Compared to The Blair Witch Project (down to the amateurish acting), the film still terrified a number of scaredy-cats attending the free shriek show on successive nights at Elks Park. Paramount has picked up the flick and, despite rumors of the studio remaking it, plans to release it as is, giving it a ghost of a chance to build momentum. Fantastic Fest followers will get to see what everyone is screaming about when it plays in Austin, Texas, on September 25.

Check out Telluride Film Festival photos, including Viggo Mortensen, Nicolas Cage and Carey Mulligan, the breakout star of An Education.

See the trailer for The Road below: