Bleak blanket bingo
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