Tumultuous Yet Compelling Trip Down 'The Road'

Directed by: John Hillcoat, Runtime: 111 minutes
Grade: B+

Getting acclimated to Cormac McCarthy's language in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Road" can be tough as he weaves through lengthy comma-free sentences and dialogue without quotations, but the raw clarity in which he paints his post-apocalyptic environment leaves very little to the imagination. He lightly scatters pensive ideas into his book, critiques on humanity's dog-eat-dog nature and the like, yet the real point in reading it comes in the nail-biting, breathless experience generated by a father and son trekking through gritty desolation. That roughness likely pulled The Proposition director John Hillcoat to the helm of this film adaptation like a magnet, a fitting match for the material due to his affinity with stark atmosphere. What he's created with The Road is a collage of all the memorable moments -- well, most of them anyway -- from McCarthy's work, drenching our journey through decaying America in disheartening beauty and feverish intent.

The narrative itself can be abridged in one sentence: a nameless father (Viggo Mortensen, The Lord of the Rings) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), after losing the mother (Charlize Theron) amid a disaster that claimed the lives of most people on earth, set out on a journey of survival to the coast in search of food, habitable locations for sleep, and "good people". Since this story centers on the darker recesses of the situation, we experience little of the optimistic and a slurry of the depressing as the pair endure frigid cold and starvation -- all while scurrying from packs of nomadic cannibals that frequent the road. Inside of that, however, lies the story of a father teaching his son how to survive with the items he carries in his knapsack or rolling cart, teaching him how to "carry the fire" if he dies and whether suicide seems like a wise use of their two bullets.

Yes, The Road can be relentlessly gloomy, but Hillcoat's adaptation could've been more so. To pack McCarthy's story into a 110-minute film, a suitably brisk runtime for material of this magnitude, he's forced to limit the width of its visceral nature and concentrate on the moments that resonate. He retains key sequences from the book that are terrifying, such as one that entails discovering starving "victims", whom we assume have been captured for cannibalism, locked up in a dank basement, and another with The Man washing his son's hair of blood in a cold river following a violent incident. They're distressing to witness; conversely, though, Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall have also curbed the amount of the father's provocative and copious narration, veering away from the book's graphic descriptions of things like washing a dead man's brains from his son's hair. Similarly, the element of suspense generated in the book from nervously following the pair's fruitless scavenging for food, wondering if they'll actually eat or not, has been condensed into well-detailed but brusque snippets.

But, along with a grasp on the audience's pain threshold, this shows a fine quality of filmmaking that knows what lines to cross, and not, in projecting The Road on-screen. It's impossible to stave off enough of the narrative's mood to make it completely accessible, but John Hillcoat comes devastatingly close by striking a fine balance between reverence to McCarthy's intents and restricted intensity. He gets so many of the dreary images right, from the endless cart-rolling on the road and the heart-rending sight of their thinning bodies to the simple back-and-forth banter around frigid campfires, that it mirrors the impressions one might get after reading the novel -- not including the context breath-for-breath, but illustrating a nuanced eye for what's important. And, amid the ashen coldness, he lets in faint, end-of-the-world level brushes with warmth and hope. It requires our focus to point them out of the harshness, but they're rewarding nonetheless.

The prime ingredient to The Road's success comes in its visual construction of post-apocalyptic America, which Hillcoat gallantly pieced together with $25million in the expanses of Pennsylvania -- along with a few spots in Louisiana and Oregon. Capturing the earthy despondency in natural locations such as an abandoned turnpike and through Mount St. Helens, instead of entirely in the digital realm, builds a distinct realism that transplants us into a cold, downtrodden environment which speaks the same language as McCarthy's dark atmosphere. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, whose work ranges from Pedro Almodovar's tour de force Talk to Her (Hablo con ella) to the series of Twilight film adaptations, ensnares that ever-present gloom which never eases up, crafting austere beauty from barrenness and dilapidation. Scenes on the road itself are grimy and ruthless, while interior shots -- such as the ones when The Man visits his childhood home -- compassionately, and with fine dramatic detail, reflect on the unseen ghosts of times past.

Visual manner is key, but it would be for naught without the right father-son chemistry -- which Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee admirably pin down. Mortensen, naturally a bit on the gaunt side, grapples the slow decay of The Man by appearing stalwart for his son's well-being and browbeaten to equal measure. A lot of the emotional connect resides in his eyes, which are wide, somewhat wild, and frantic to a tempered level. Flashback sequences involving his wife, which are brought to life with better-than-expected aplomb from Charlize Theron, receive extended emotional focus here than the book and reminisce on their pre-catastrophe world in both tender and tumultuous lights. Kodi Smit-McPhee, somewhat differently, indicates a sense of both innocence and conditioning to the environment with his disposition that's impressive. The son's a boy who was born into sadness, without seeing birds or drinking Coca-Cola, and there's something about McPhee's weathered but innocent attitude that intuitively conveys it.

Still, none of that can sidestep the fact that John Hillcoat's The Road is still a tough, opaque film to watch, where humanity literally chews at itself amid society's rubble in the wake of disaster. What's accomplished here is that the much-labored imagery from the book, meticulously illustrated by McCarthy, has been condensed and articulated in visual form, a collage of affecting images spanning destroyed homes of hearth to the exasperating sight of a once-blue sea turned gray and sad. That's the experience in stepping into this picture, yet the way in which Hillcoat retains the core of the story -- the strengthening bond between The Man and his son as they struggle against the cruelties of both environment and humanity -- gives it hapless, famished emotion through every dismayed shot.


Chris Purdy said...

This was a strange film to me.

It was remarkably close to the novel, the atmosphere and set design was brilliant, the performances terrific, the cinematography gorgeous, yet...when it was over, I didn't feel much of anything.

It could have been a masterpiece but something was missing.

Thomas Spurlin said...

Something IS missing.

Two things actually ... that nervous sensation when you're waiting in anticipation to see if The Man and his boy find food on an "everyday" basis, and some of the vivid thematic narration (i.e. most of the childbirth / baby imagery). Fidgeting and blitzing through pages to a point when they find food became my favorite part of the whole "The Road" experience, while the ideas pivoting around bringing babies into that world, let along what actually happens to them, are some of the heavier thought-generating topics that McCarthy addresses.

Trying to incorporate those two elements into an already dark film like this, however, would've transformed it into something akin to a cinematic sledgehammer with too much force behind its message. So, for the imagery that John Hillcoat does include and his exquisite rendering of disaster-riddled (scorched earth?) American, it's still a fine, faithful success.

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