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Telluride Film Festival: 'The Road' looks to get on track

September 6, 2009 |  5:18 pm

Theroad2 Film festivals often fill an invaluable role in establishing a film's critical momentum and seeding the clouds for good word-of-mouth. The Telluride Film Festival has played an important recent role in that regard, helping build attention for "Slumdog Millionaire," "Juno" and "Capote," among a number of other critical and commercial hits.

The struggling Weinstein Co. is hoping Telluride will be especially kind to "The Road," after the movie about a father and his son trying to navigate a perilous post-apocalyptic America debuted at the Venice Film Festival to polarized reviews. Equally important, director John Hillcoat and star Viggo Mortensen (honored in a sold-out Telluride tribute tonight) are hopeful their Telluride screenings can establish what the film really is, as opposed to what its early advertising materials have suggested: a moving story of a father's unrelenting love for his son rather than a "Mad Max" action thriller as the movie's opening trailer misleadingly implied.

When the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic bestseller debuted in Venice, it received far more positive notices than bad. The Times of London gave the film four out of five stars, as did The Independent, which said Hillcoat "made a film of power and sensitivity that works remarkably well on the big screen." Equally (or just slightly less) enthusiastic reviews were posted by Screen International, The Guardian and The Hollywood Reporter.

The road But Hollywood's other trade newspaper, Variety, savaged the film -- an ominous sign for a film postponed by production delays from a 2008 release that some people believe is a contender for this year's best picture Oscar race. 

"Directors have a very unhealthy habit of paying the most attention to the most negative reviews," Hillcoat said of Variety's defenestration. "That was very disappointing, especially because I have since heard that he hadn't read the book."

If there was nothing else to say about the Variety review, there was much to do about the film's emotional pull. Hillcoat refused to second-guess the film's early advertising materials, hopeful they would expand "The Road's" audience beyond the relatively small circle of McCarthy fans. "This film is about human goodness and what makes us special," the Australian filmmaker said. "Because it's set in a harrowing world, that's only to highlight why this relationship is so special."

-- John Horn

 Photos of Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee from "The Road" courtesy of the Weinstein Co.