Sunday, January 3, 2010
Few directors so completely match the content of an adapted work like John Hillcoat does The Road. Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel was barren and visceral, so stark its sentence structure was basic and terse. Hillcoat, director of the 2005 arid Western The Proposition, fit the source material like a glove. Indeed, for a while, this depiction of a world gone to hell displays a match made in heaven.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Hillcoat shot the movie in black-and-white: even the desaturated tones of WWII epics Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers look like Almodóvar films compared to this. As with the novel, the film never tells the audience what happened to the world, merely moving through the aftermath of its near-destruction; it's a world stripped of all greenery, where "each day is more gray than the one before." In this world, time and place have no meaning, where the characters have no names because they no longer matter in a world with so few remaining creatures that mere existence makes one unique enough not to require a title.
The Man (Viggo Mortensen) decides to take his son, The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), from their home somewhere in the middle of the East Coast to the Southeast in the hope of escaping the bitter cold and for another reason quickly revealed in the novel but reserved here until right at the end for maximum emotional impact. Mortensen is just as right for his role in front of the camera as Hillcoat is behind it: he perfectly balances the fortitude and deteriorating strength and resolve of The Man. You feel safe with him, despite his palpable desperation and his ever-shrinking frame. Few people could project a cold sanity through the unkempt and oily beard he sports, but Mortensen has an odd charisma about him that radiates authority. Smit-McPhee also makes an impression as The Boy, just as frightened and childish in a world that impossibly demands instant maturation as the literary iteration. The Boy must also, though, reflect some of that maturity, and Smit-McPhee got the part specifically because those who chose him saw a wisdom beyond his years. I don't know that I quite agree with that assessment, but he certainly has a perceptibility about him that's more relevant to the part than wisdom, as the most "egregious" display of his childishness is his innocence and ability to still see the good in the world.
Where McCarthy's novel maintained a constant tension broken by a few desperately necessary reprieves, The Road moves in spurts: it's bleak, it's bleak, it's kind of happy, it's bleak again. Flashbacks, used sparingly in the novel to provide only the most basic link to a normal past, give extra time to The Wife (Charlize Theron, who actually bears a striking physical resemblance to Smit-McPhee). Hillcoat overuses these glimpses to the past, breaking the flow and atmosphere of the grisly present. As such, Hillcoat's film, working from Joe Penhall's script, contains peaks and troughs where McCarthy's was one long crescendo.
Some of these disjointed moments work, such as a dusty can of Coca-Cola that has retained enough of its red hue to break the near-monochrome around it to stand as a beacon to the two starving travelers. This moment is more deeply felt than the later discovery of an abandoned shelter loaded with food, such a triumphant bit in the novel but bizarrely blasé here. In the film's most memorable segment, Man and Boy happen upon an old, dying man (Robert Duvall, if you can recognize him) and, in this version, not only give him a precious can of food but invite him for dinner; in the light of the fire, his cataract-clouded eyes and grimy, withered face are more terrible than the host of horror occasionally paraded on-screen for shock effect. He seems a dying god when he morbidly responds, "Foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these" when Man asks if he wishes for death.
Perhaps The Road suffered the weight of rising expectations, what with its long delays, the quality of the source material (not McCarthy's best by a long shot, but a damn gripping read nonetheless), and the rapturous reception of the previous McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men. If you let yourself slip into Hillcoat's appropriately ascetic nightmare, The Road genuinely works; but all the moments he inserted to break our concentration keep us from simply playing ball with the picture. It could have been much worse I suppose, though that isn't really a point in its favor; ultimately, Hillcoat, Mortensen and Smit-McPhee do an excellent job of keeping our attention when they're working together, but those too-frequent pauses grind the film down to a level just above average even without unfairly comparing it to the source material, much less the Coens' magnificent take on No Country. Still, as much as I might complain about Hollywood's lack of originality, the thought of more McCarthy adaptations is too delicious a prospect to refuse.