The Road

The Road (2009): United States – directed by John Hillcoat

Rated R by the MPAA – contains violence, nudity, mature themes

It’s been some time since I listened to an audio version of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road.  Perhaps that is a good thing going into the movie, since I forgot many of the smaller details and only retained a sense of the general story and overwhelming atmosphere.

That’s not to say that the movie version is not good, only that it manages to focus more closely on the story and the atmosphere rather than the existential questions about humanity that the book provokes.  I was excited when I heard John Hillcoat would be directing.  I had enjoyed his previous feature film, The Proposition.  Starring Guy Pearce, it is a bloody, dusty Australian western.  Knowing Hillcoat’s penchant for crafting a believably dirty mise en scène, I had a feeling he would be able to recreate the ashy, desolate world of The Road.  This he has achieved admirably.

The cast is small, with only Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, playing the Man and his Boy, getting more than ten minutes of screen time.  The advertising suggests that Robert Duvall (an old, wizened man they meet on their journey), Guy Pearce (who gets maybe four minutes at the end), and Charlize Theron (who plays the Man’s wife in flashbacks) are all big parts of the film, but anyone who has read the book knows there is no room for other characters beside the man and his son.

The setting is evident: the East Coast.  The time is not, as the man has not kept a calendar for several years.  There are no people around.  The only ones you meet on the road are cannibals and rapists, and they are to be avoided.  Something terrible happened to the planet years before the events of the movie.  All life has died except for a few people.  Many of the survivors have committed suicide, while the rest scrounge for food and commit what would be crimes against humanity, if there were any humanity left.

The man and the boy are different, though.  They are the good guys, carrying the fire as they trek toward the coast.  Their plan is to then head south to warmer areas.  The man has a singular purpose in mind: to teach the boy how to survive, as it appears he alone is responsible for the future of the human species.  There is a lot of walking involved, interspersed with occasional flashbacks and random encounters.  The duo run into a gang of cannibals and barely escape unscathed.  A farmhouse along the way looks inviting, but is soon found out to be occupied by a gang of people and a basement full of food.

I was concerned when the film was delayed from last November to this year.  Such a push often indicates lack of confidence by the distributor as Oscar season approaches.  While the film is not bad, I doubt it will be mentioned much in the Oscar race outside of Mortensen.  I enjoyed many parts of the movie.  The aesthetic is dead-on, with Pennsylvania filling in for a world without any life.  Scenes involving dilapidated suburbs and small towns are the most evocative.  The forests are dead, the ground is filthy, and the actors are hard to recognize underneath the grime.  Occasionally the movie seems to drag, with some sections feeling rather inert.

The Road is understandably a difficult book to film, and I suspect this resulting movie is about as good as it could have been done without major rewrites.  The story stays generally true to the novel, but the psychological aspects and the relationship between the boy and his father necessarily suffer in the switch between mediums.  I enjoyed the film, especially Mortenson’s intense performance and the visual qualities.  At the same time I would have trouble recommending it to most people.  It would get a bit tedious for those looking for an action movie.  The movie, like the book, is unpleasant at times, so the experience of watching the movie might not be enjoyable for most people.  Perhaps those looking to get their post-apocalyptic fix might appreciate it best, or lovers of the book who are willing to make some concessions in order to see the book onscreen.

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