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The Road, post-apoca­lypse drama, rated R, Re­gal DeVar­gas, 3 chiles

Cor­mac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road has the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the only book that’s ever af­fected my emo­tional health to the point that my wife asked me to stop read­ing it. Be­ing a new fa­ther in the worst eco­nomic cli­mate of my life­time gave the story of a fa­ther and son strug­gling to sur­vive in a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic world a cer­tain res­o­nance.

And now, here is the film adap­ta­tion, just in time for Christ­mas! The dreary mood is set early and ef­fec­tively, when char­ac­ters ca­su­ally step through a pile of half-burnt cash. For those un­fa­mil­iar with the book, it takes place in Amer­ica af­ter some­thing ter­ri­ble (it is un­ex­plained, but think su­per vol­cano or nu­clear holo­caust) has ren­dered the land a bar­ren, ashen waste­land. Sur­vivors travel the coun­try in small packs, scroung­ing for food. Many have be­come cold-blooded killers. Oth­ers have be­come can­ni­bals. This is the world in which a fa­ther (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) push their shop­ping cart full of mea­ger sup­plies down the road. They are at­tempt­ing to reach the coast, for no ap­par­ent rea­son other than to have a goal.

That is the plot, but the book’s strength isn’t that story as much as it is McCarthy’s eco­nomic, en­gag­ing prose. A film adap­ta­tion may seem a fu­tile en­deavor, but writer Joe Pen­hall ( En­dur­ing

As far as the script goes, there is lit­tle to com­plain about. Any wor­ries that the movie would be made more “Hol­ly­wood” by play­ing up the action, the ro­man­tic flash­backs, or even— yikes— dis­as­ter se­quences were un­founded. Flash­backs serve to bring an­other A-list ac­tor (Char­l­ize Theron) into the cast and ful­fill the obli­ga­tion in Mortensen’s con­tract that he must nuz­zle a horse in ev­ery film he’s in, but they aren’t quite vi­brant enough to con­vey what the fam­ily has lost. The fate of the mother (Theron) plays dif­fer­ently on the screen, where we can see the world around the char­ac­ters (and it’s not that bad, not at that point). In the book, we imag­ine the sit­u­a­tion to be much more dire and can more eas­ily un­der­stand the mother’s dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion.

Mortensen is one of our more un­der­rated lead­ing men. In The Road, he man­ages to evoke love and fear and shows ways in which the emo­tions are in­ter­twined. Smit-McPhee isn’t given as much weight to bear, but he is ca­pa­ble of hold­ing his own with Mortensen. In his fa­cial fea­tures, the boy bears a strong re­sem­blance to Theron, which I’m guess­ing is not a co­in­ci­dence but is meant to re­in­force why the fa­ther is fight­ing so hard for the boy’s sur­vival. The small cast of the film is rounded out with ex­cel­lent char­ac­ter ac­tors Gar­ret Dil­lahunt ( Dead­wood) and Michael K. Wil­liams ( TheWire). A barely rec­og­niz­able Robert Du­vall also turns in a mov­ing scene as a seer-like trav­eler.

De­spite my re­ac­tion to the book, I don’t find the en­vi­ron­ment of this story to be ter­ri­bly bleak, and not just be­cause great art is rarely de­press­ing. If any­thing, the world it­self is beau­ti­ful, as if the coun­try­side was drawn with char­coal pen­cil and holds the Zen-like ab­sence of all the noise and junk that we bury our­selves in.

What is fright­en­ing to me is how peo­ple in our world be­have as if they live in those des­per­ate times. Without giv­ing crit­i­cal pieces of di­a­logue away, the movie hits on one of the cen­tral ques­tions of the book, which is: How do you live in a world like this? I think the ques­tion also ap­plies to the world we in­habit. And the an­swer, in both cases, is: with com­pas­sion and de­cency, it is to be hoped. Love) and di­rec­tor John Hill­coat ( The Propo­si­tion) have done about as fine a job as one could ex­pect. They man­age to con­vey the des­o­late land­scape and hope­less so­ci­ety in mem­o­rable fash­ion, and they touch upon all of the novel’s ma­jor themes, specif­i­cally about fa­ther and son de­pend­ing on each other for sur­vival in ut­terly dif­fer­ent ways. Like the Coen Broth­ers with their adap­ta­tion of No Coun­try for Old Men, Hill­coat has brought McCarthy’s writ­ing to vivid life.

But The Road stum­bles, be­cause you’re never un­aware that you’re watch­ing a movie. You could pick up the novel and within a para­graph feel as though you’re in the world. The movie strug­gles to draw the au­di­ence in. The mu­sic by Nick Cave and War­ren El­lis ac­cen­tu­ates the bar­ren, haunt­ing land­scape, but any mu­sic would have been a dis­trac­tion. Cin­e­matog­ra­pher Javier Aguir­re­sarobe stages some pow­er­ful shots, but he also calls too much at­ten­tion to the cam­er­a­work and strug­gles with the im­pos­si­ble task of lighting a movie set in a world with no elec­tric­ity. The Road is un­de­ni­ably gor­geous, but I kept feel­ing that the story would have been bet­ter served with a stripped-down ap­proach, sim­i­lar to what Michael Haneke ac­com­plished with his 2003 post-apoca­lypse film The Time of the Wolf.

A rare smile: Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee

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