The Road taps the power, beauty and horror of Cormac McCarthy’s novel and gives us a movie that is both gorgeous and gut-wrenching.
For those biting their nails in anticipation (I know you’re out there), I’ll skip the usual opening fanfare and get right to it: In my opinion, director John Hillcoat has successfully taken the power, beauty and horror of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road and translated it, intact, to the big screen. I think that those moviegoers who don’t already read McCarthy now have another good example of why they should (The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men being the other); I think that those who DO read McCarthy will at least be happy that the movie version “didn’t screw it up,” and at most will truly appreciate the movie based on its own merits.
Now that I’ve got that out, let’s back it up and start at the beginning.
The Road tells the story of a bleak future where America (and maybe the world) has become a slowly rotting dystopia scorched by some unnamed disaster. The days are gray, ash rains from the sky and the air is only getting colder as the world grows dark. In this hell are The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), walking the road from up north down the southern coastline, where hopefully they won’t freeze to death come winter. Man and Boy used to be completed by Wife (Charlize Theron), until the burden of protecting a child from hell on Earth became too much for her to bear.
For Man and Boy, the objective is simple: Head south along the road and keep surviving. That means finding food – somehow, someway – amidst the bone-picked ash lands, and more importantly, keeping out of the sights and snares of roving bands of cannibal gangs, who will surely rape, kill and then devour Man and Boy both – not necessarily in that order.
Welcome to the world of Mr. McCarthy.
Though the plot sounds like something out of a horror film, the real power of The Road is found in the poignant and gut-wrenching meditation on the power of a parent’s love. That Cormac McCarthy spun such a brilliant book out of those threads was a feat in itself; the task facing John Hillcoat and his cast when embarking on this film was monumental: bottle lightning twice, on a much bigger scale. I’m happy to report that both visually and performance-wise, all parties rise to the occasion.
Let’s start with the visuals. I was literally blown away by how well each and every single scene in the film brought to life the scorched world as told in McCarthy’s prose. If you read the author, you know of his unequaled (almost poetic) talent for describing scenes of land and nature – they’re the heart of his books and to overlook them would be a fatal flaw on the part of any film trying to recreate “the McCarthy experience.” Thankfully, Hillcoat takes a page out of The Coen Brothers’ playbook and invests wisely in an array of gorgeous scorched-Earth landscaping shots.
Not only does The Road nail pretty much every major set piece of the book, I dare say that the filmmakers are often successful in enhancing what the book created – as any cinematic adaptation worth a damn should do. There are these perfect little touches to every set piece: Ash piles and blackened metal husks on some burnt-out city block; loose bills of money blood-stuck to the ground that flail in the wind; ashen horizons, naked, gnarled forests and sludge-filled creeks; body parts, spilled guts and burnt skeletons littering the wayside – it’s all there, and the carnage is gorgeous. Even McCarthy’s constant mention of dying trees uprooting and falling over has been noted and included. It’s a film you could literally watch on mute and enjoy all the same.
But what about the acting?
Without some knockout performances, the entire emotional narrative of The Road would have sank beneath the horror-movie premise. But again, John Hillcoat is wise in his decision making, tapping just the right actors (read: talented) to play the handful of supporting roles the film offers.
At the center are The Man and The Boy. I know a few ladies are excited to see Viggo Mortensen back on the screen doing what he does best, and Mr. Mortensen once again steps up to the plate and earns that praise, giving us a Man who is half-crazed from love for his son, the loss of his Wife and the burden of waking up everyday to hell just to make sure that breath stays flowing through his son’s body. The film quickly forces you to understand that this is a world where the most important lesson a father has to teach his son is how to properly blow his brains out if cornered by cannibals. Mortensen attacks these chilling moments with all the genuine concern of a parent who truly wants the best for their child, making such moments all the more terrible. I couldn’t stop cringing in my seat.
Regarding Kodi Smit-McPhee as The Boy… I rank The Road 4.5 out of 5 only because I know that some people will make the fair argument that The Boy is “annoying” at times. For my part, I think Smit-McPhee does good work – only in a film where the rest of the cast and director are doing great work. The young actor is clearly too, well, young to totally comprehend (let alone convey) what this story is all about. As it stands, The Boy ends up as more of a physical metaphor than a realized character, and I think you can (and will) debate amongst yourselves about how closely (or not) that portrayal honors what McCarthy intended in the novel.
As for the supporting cast, I applaud the filmmakers for turning to a skilled set of actors to play what might be considered by more foolish minds to be “bit parts.” Garret Dillahunt (Deadwood) made my skin crawl in two minutes of screen time as a cannibal gang member; Michael K. Williams (The Wire) continues to prove why he’s so respected, bringing total humanity to The Thief (above) in just three minutes; Guy Pearce keeps you guessing for a minute whether The Veteran is going to save or savor The Boy; and Robert Duvall is a seasoned pro, transforming yet another supporting role into an indelible one. No weak links in this chain.
However, one thing I thought would certainly irk me were the usual Hollywood “liberties” taken with every book-to-film translation. In this instance, I predicted that the role of The Wife would be fattened up in order to lure an actress of Charlize Theron’s caliber to the part. Well, on the one hand I was right: the role is fattened up for the movie, but it’s all meat on the bones, no blubber. And I was certainly surprised by THAT.
What screenwriter Joe Penhall does so brilliantly in his adaptation is to set up a juxtaposition between Man and Wife over the fate of The Boy. Mom believes that what’s best is for the three of them to end it together, peacefully, painlessly, hopefully bound for a better place. Dad, however, can’t give in and is willing to drag them all (literally) across the plains of hell if it means his son’s survival for even a day. In her short moments onscreen, Theron makes a fierce and persuasive argument for The Wife’s point of view, often through her hollowed eyes, and rigid frown, or in her soul-torn pleas to The Man to ‘do the right thing.’
It’s an element of the story that wasn’t as pronounced in McCarthy’s book, and I believe it adds a fantastic dimension to the film. Comparing the philosophies of Man and Wife forces you to constantly wonder and question what is truly best for this child. When The Man and Boy discover the Coca-Cola side of life – when they have smiles on their faces as they share a red can of bubbly, you think to yourself, “A perfect reason to stay alive.” But, when Man and Boy discover a cellar full of filthy, half-eaten prisoners and hear hungry cannibals bearing down on them, you wonder if The Wife didn’t have the right idea – or worse yet, you question what you would do. Whenever The Boy has to witness another horror, you wonder what life he can possibly have – the very question The Wife asked of The Man.
What I especially love about this interpretation of The Road is that it suspends the grand judgment of whether The Man is right or wrong for trying to keep his Boy alive. By the end, we can only hope – never know, just hope - that parent has done the right things for child along the way – and isn’t that really the most our parents can ever hope for us, or that we can ever hope for our kids?
The fact that I’m left with that question after seeing this film lets me know The Road has done its job and honored its source material. I’ll go so far as to say the film deserves consideration come awards season this winter, and I feel no qualms about saying so. It’s a powerful film, a great accomplishment by cast and crew and you shouldn’t miss it. I think even Mr. McCarthy can be proud of this one.
The Road will be in theaters on November 25, 2009.