Adapted by director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) and playwright Joe Penhall from Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, The Road starts out with a lot to prove. The novel was an Oprah Book Club selection and the 10th in McCarthy’s 35-year career of painting prose poems about Men and the Things They Do.
Those who love McCarthy’s stoic language of solitary self-reliance will be waiting for the film version to fail. Those who don’t care for McCarthy’s unrelentingly sparse style or the unblinking cruelty and violence he subjects his characters to are probably going to have no interest in seeing Viggo Mortensen and young newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee act them out. On top of that, The Road is going to be somewhat unfairly held to higher expectations now that the Coen Brothers have cracked the McCarthy novel-to-film code with the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men.
Then of course there is that subject matter. Due to a purposefully unnamed, unexplained cataclysm, civilization has if not been ended then at least been knocked pretty far back on its heels.
What's left is a landscape of ash and decay, cities in dust, most people and animals gone, roadways roamed by gangs looking for whatever food they can find, even from—especially from—previously taboo sources. This is not the whoopee disaster porn of 2012 or the tough-guy excitement of post-apocalyptic action flicks. TV ads for The Road have tried to gin up two mostly false impressions: that the film is full of gut-twisting threats smoothed over in the end via an Up With People triumph of the human spirit.
Yes there is danger on The Road, coming at the Man and Boy (as they are known) from a variety of stomach-churning angles. And yes, as the Man repeatedly tells the Boy, there is a flame of hope still flickering, they are “carrying the fire” of not just civilization, but human goodness. But much of Hillcoat’s film, like McCarthy’s novel, is concerned with slowly pulling you down into this foggy gray world of grueling monotonous survival. The film isn’t running to show you the way to a happy ending, it’s asking you to trudge along that road with the worn-down pair, to share their constant fear, their struggle to find a reason why living and moving along is preferable to not doing either.
Along the way, McCarthy’s underlying Biblical themes are maintained—the Man’s Old-Testament approach: protective, selfish and ruthless, even vengeful in his willingness to do what it takes to preserve his tribe, his remaining family. That almost knee-jerk desperation to survive is counter-balanced by the Man’s painfully pragmatic need to teach the Boy how to use the last bullet in their gun on himself. (Mother, aka Woman, is played by Charlize Theron and is shown in
heartrending flashbacks to have already taken the easy way out.)
It’s hard not to be drawn in by the sunken weariness of Mortensen’s face, especially when he’s doing some of the best quiet, understated work of a career built on quiet, understated work. Mortensen’s laconic strength has always well-served the hero who knows how unlikely a happy ending is, and yet keeps pushing ahead.
The Boy is something different, born into this world and nicely portrayed by Smit-McPhee as a vessel of both innocence and apprehension. The Boy yearns to show and share the generosity and compassion his desolate world has stripped away from its grown-ups, and the numerous references to him as an angel as well as the word of God only underscore his New Testament leanings. The Man insists the cataclysm has reduced the world to a stark dichotomy: they are the Good Guys, but he doesn’t have the luxury of always being one. The Boy does and as such represents some sort of frail promise.
(The Man frantically steers them clear of human contact, “community” having devolved into something brutal and horrifically thuggish. It’s the Boy who seeks out others—fellow travelers on the road such as Robert Duvall and Michael Williams from The Wire–wanting to trust and forgive them as embers of civilization rather than threats.)
I personally respond to this sort of thing—I’m a big fan of the Beauty of Decay, of washed-out horizons set to the minor-key piano and violin of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I love how despite its unflinching honesty about the horrors of this world, The Road still maintains the novel’s fable-like tone—a mournful tale passed down from a terrifyingly barren future.
And I like having to sift a film’s messages out of the ashes, to take some sort of cathartic solace from imagining a world, a life, an existence that is nearly unimaginable. The Road takes you as far down as it dares (some of the more heartbreaking and stomach-turning details from the novel have been sloughed off in the name of the most marginal of commercial appeal) and then asks you, now that you’re down here, what are you going to cling to?
One of the things you hear a lot when writing about film is the
complaint that people “just want to escape” via movies; to get away
from their daily problems and have some fun, some laughs, maybe some
warm feelings about life and people and the world and themselves.
Needless to say The Road is not going to hit that spot. But it’s exactly because The Road
is so (mostly) uncompromisingly bleak and because it treads so close to the abyss that it’s all the more powerful and effective when it
does let slip a tiny sliver of light–one that had been hidden away
out of fear of it being seen and snuffed out.
Obviously this sort of thing isn’t for everyone, and even for those who seek it out, the film sometimes stumbles and drags. But I for one relish how The Road uses the power of despair to invoke the hardest-earned hope.