Directed by: John Hillcoat || Produced by: Nick Wechsler, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz
Screenplay by: Joe Penhall || Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron, Michael Kenneth Williams, Garret Dillahunt, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker
Music by: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis || Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe || Edited by: Jon Gregory || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 111 minutes
Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, The Road, was the last work of fiction I ever read. I finished it in the year 2009, I believe, and occasionally I struggle to recall many events from the book that my imagination conjured up on its own before I saw the movie-adaptation less than a year later. That is not because John Hillcoat’s version “corrupted” my memory of a good book with a shoddy Hollywood cash-grab, or anything of the sort. No, if anything, I associate the film version of McCarthy’s brilliant novel (it truly is brilliant, you should go read it, and then see the film) so damn intimately because The Road film is the novel fully realized on screen. In fact the film’s biggest problem may be that it is too faithful to the source material, or as Rottontomatoes puts it, “The Road’s commitment to Cormac McCarthy’s dark vision may prove too unyielding for some,” although I might say, “too unyielding for most people.”
The Road is for better and worse the exact, most accurate representation of the novel in film form, and many things work because of that, but a few attributes don’t simply because of the inherent limitations of literally transplanting aspects of one art medium to another. The Road is hauntingly beautiful above all else, yes, but it is dark, it is dirty, and by God is it grim and horrifying —- and not always in a good way.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the original book, The Road is in many ways an archetypal, perhaps even stereotypical vision of the post-apocalyptic world. Society has decayed and humanity has scattered as the entire world and all non-human life slowly dies along with its scavenging Homo sapiens. The world is described in text (and depicted on screen) as a dark and depressing post-nuclear-holocaust-esque winter. Everything in the film (as originally described by the text) is portrayed in greys, browns, blacks, and more greys. There is death and hopelessness all around in every shot of every scene. Take the worst, most ugly winter day you can imagine with no snow, tons of grey and grimy muck, and dead or dying vegetation all around you, and that is The Road’s setting for 111 minutes.
In many ways, this works wonders for the film from a thematic standpoint because the emotional status of the central characters is always present without them having to say one word. Film is always described as visual medium where narratives, emotions, and concepts should be shown, not told, and as such this translation of The Road’s premise from book to film is flawless.
However, reading about a son (an excellent Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his father (Viggo Mortensen as the quintessential “movie-Dad”) drifting endlessly through a literal wasteland of death, decay, and suffering is quite different from watching it. The pervasive, constant, all-encompassing gloom of the narrative becomes too one-note and even exhausting by the end, where as the novel’s descriptions allow for a more patient, efficient, well paced delivery of the story’s dark tone.
This where McCarthy’s (and by association, Hillcoat’s) attachment to the standard conventions of post-apocalyptic fiction grows wearisome: Visually speaking, human beings can only stand so much of one color and one emotionally-draining mood for so long. The film’s morbid tone works much of the time despite its relentlessness (Hillcoat largely does an outstanding job directing this mostly un-adaptable screenplay), but it also becomes unbearable much of the time as well. This is why an artistic adaptation of a project made in another medium isn’t always “better” for staying faithful to the original work. Sometimes changes have to be made to accommodate the inherent strengths and weakness of every artistic medium, and a story told one way in one particular medium (e.g. literature) can’t always be told in a perfect one-to-one translation in another (e.g. film)…or at least it shouldn’t be.
With that said, much of what makes The Road unforgettable is its painstaking faithfulness to the central thesis of McCarthy’s novel. What sets the film and the book’s premise apart from most other artistic post-apocalyptica is its sidestepping of the actual cause of the end of the world. The cataclysmic event that destroyed civilization is never specified and thus the universality of the concept of the world dying are made more accessible, emotional, and oddly relatable. The focus is not on why the world is ending or how, but what it means. By ignoring the root causes of its hellish premise, The Road forces us to pay attention to the figures within the dying landscape more so than the landscape itself, and in particular our two co-leads in the Boy (Smit-McPhee) and the Man (Mortensen), who are never given names. The Road asks the question, “Can the good and compassionate side of humanity survive and withstand its evil and selfish counterpart when all hope is lost in the world?”
It’s a question that quite a few movies pose to their audiences, but The Road frames the same unanswerable question so much better by ignoring all the nonessential details with which most end-of-the-world fiction unknowingly distracts their audience. Why is there no hope? It doesn’t matter — answer the question!
If you can stomach the excessive gloom and repetitive style of John Hillcoat’s The Road, I highly recommend you check it out. It’s not the most outstanding take on post-apocalyptic fiction, as the premise is by default a difficult concept for authors to wrap their minds around and break down in a meaningful way, but Hillcoat manages to do it with and despite McCarthy’s guidance.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Though he often does it to his own detriment, Hillcoat captures the grimy, gritty, honest spirit of The Road through desolate imagery, creepy location-shooting, and cutting through all the bullshit to get to the core of what really fascinates us about the human condition amidst the end of the world. Oh, and Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee are amazing.
— However… though he often does it to his own benefit, Hillcoat captures the grimy, gritty, honest spirit of The Road through desolate imagery, creepy location-shooting, and cutting through all the bullshit to get to the core of what really fascinates us about the human condition amidst the end of the world.
? I told the boy when you dream about bad things happening, it means you’re still fighting and you’re still alive. It’s when you start to dream about good things that you should start to worry.