Dir: John Hillcoat
One of my writers advised me to bring a blanket to the screening of The Road, director John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s much-lauded novel. Having read the book, I knew to expect a film where a father (Viggo Mortensen) and young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wander a barren landscape set in an America after an unnamed apocalypse, however, I should have heeded my writer’s advice.
Translating a much loved book for the screen, especially one that had the cultural magnitude and popularity of The Road, is never an easy task and McCarthy’s spare prose leaves the filmmaker much space to fill in the blanks. While Billy Bob Thornton couldn’t pull it off with is version of All the Pretty Horses, the Coen brothers more or less nailed the author’s elusive nihilism in the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men by letting the empty spaces speak for themselves. However, Hillcoat’s vision of The Road falls somewhere in the middle of these two films. It is much more effective than Thornton’s misplaced romanticism, yet too literal to make it as indelible as No Country.
Though a director such as Terence Malick may have been better-suited to handle The Road, Hillcoat makes good on the promise of his prior film The Proposition. Much like the haunting desert outback of The Proposition, Hillcoat sets his Road in the sparse, winter of an America where the sun no longer appears and ruins of automobiles line destroyed interstates and bridges. As Mortensen’s nameless character and his son trek towards the promise of warmth on the Gulf Coast, a promise we soon learn is probably fabricated by the father to keep the son’s hope alive, they must contend not only with the elements and the specter of starvation, but marauding gangs of other humans who have turned to cannibalism to survive. However, Mad Max this film is not.
While Hillcoat’s vision hews closely to the spirit of the source material, he adds flashbacks that depict Mortensen’s final days with his wife (Charlize Theron) before she gives up hope and commits suicide. These scenes do add a welcome relief from the relentless grey of the wilderness, yet perhaps work a little too hard to magnify what is inherent in the novel’s subtext. The lingering question that hangs over the book, should one struggle to survive when there appears to be no reason to do so, is pushed to the forefront of the film without the subtlety of McCarthy’s pen stroke. Though it may seem a minor quibble, some more shading of purpose without spelling it out so much could nudged this film closer to masterpiece status.
Yet, there are so many wonderful and haunting moments; The Road is one of the more interesting films to come out in 2009. The father and boy encounter an old man (Robert Duvall in a devastating cameo) to whom the son wants to assist much to chagrin of the father. It’s this stripping away of basic human decency, life in a world where we must watch someone else starve to death so we can live, where Hillcoat meets McCarthy’s challenge and chillingly dares the audience to believe they would not do the same.
For those expecting another No Country For Old Men, Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhell are not looking to recreate that experience. No Country’s silent vistas are replaced by a haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that seasons the film’s autumnal pallor. Sure, no music at all would have been equally chilling, yet a facsimile of No Country would have been a misstep for sure.
While those expecting an action film may be bored and those looking for a less literal transposition of the source novel may be disappointed, The Road is still a daring film anchored by another strong Mortensen performance. Even though I knew what to expect, moments still alternately startled and warmed me as Hillcoat and McCarthy examine what depths and heights the human spirit will go in the worst of times. Bundle up.