When a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was
announced I wasn’t quite sure why anyone would want to make that book
into a movie. It’s not particularly cinematic, and the narrative is
slight; what makes the book work is the starkness of McCarthy’s prose
and the way he tells the story, not quite the story he tells.



After seeing the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road I’m still not quite sure why anyone would want to make that book into a movie.



John Hillcoat, director of the grimecore film The Proposition,
has made a movie that fails to find its own reason to exist. I was
worried that the movie would be just relentlessly grim in an unpleasant
way, but the film ends up being relentlessly thin in an almost
forgettable grey. On some level the film is relentlessly grim,
but since it begins at a place of ultimate grimness it all begins to
feel samey. Instead of wearing you down it kind of bores you.



Which isn’t to say that the film is bad, as it’s not. It’s just not particularly good. It sort of just is.
Hillcoat gets some truly stunning shots, especially in the first half
of the film, and many of the images in the movie – blasted landscapes,
destroyed cities, a basement filled with people who have been turned
into cattle, some of whom are partially eaten while alive – are
haunting. In other hands this film might have just been a series of
haunting images, what we pretentious critics like to call a ‘tone poem’
– a movie where fuckall happens, but there’s a mood and a texture
created. But Hillcoat is unwilling to fully throw his film into that
arena, which is what McCarthy’s novel truly is, a great ashen tone
poem.



The film occasionally seems to be ramping up to something. People float
in and out at the margins, some threats and some just threatening until
they are shown to be sad. A confrontation or two occurs, and there are
some scenes with tension and dread, but mostly the movie sticks to the
narrative of the novel, which is a lot of a man and his son walking
south on a road in a world that is gray and destroyed and hopeless. And
coughing while they go.



Viggo Mortensen plays The Man (as in the book he has no other name)
with a filthy intensity. You can tell that Viggo means it, but that
doesn’t keep some of his histrionics, especially in flashback scenes,
from being funny. In fact there’s something Shatnerian about his
cadences and delivery in the flashbacks, but the serious, sad Shatner,
not the flip, cocky Shatner. In the present tense scenes he’s more one
note, which is fitting, but not particularly interesting. Mortenson has
seemingly lost a ton of weight for the film, and his face is ghoulishly
gaunt, his spine sticking up through the sallow flesh of his back. His
beard is thick and tangled, and his hair is greasy and matted. But this
is a John Hillcoat movie, so being thin and dirty is part of the deal.
Is being naked? Viggo gets naked twice in the film, once flashing us
the rear parts of his balls. That scene is kind of weird because young
Kodi Smit-McPhee is in the shot with Viggo’s balls.



Smit-McPhee plays The Boy. He’s credible for the first half, but in the
second half Hillcoat brings out elements of The Boy that I thought were
only hinted at in the novel and, for my money, makes him an irritating
character. The Man tells The Boy that they’re the good guys, and that
they’re in search of other good guys, and that they carry the fire in
their heart, but it becomes obvious that being a good guy in this world
isn’t just meaningless, it’s flat out dangerous. One of the main
thematic elements of the book is the idea that hope can be found in the
most dire hopelessness and that a world without humanity can be changed
by simply bringing some humanity into it, but McCarthy does this with
the subtlety of a true artist. Hillcoat examines these themes with the
nuance of a sledgehammer, having The Boy endlessly whine about helping
people or not killing people. At one point The Man and The Boy are
attacked by people with a crossbow; in the book the boy clings to his
father as The Man goes to deal with their assailants but in the movie
The Boy begs The Man not to kill the other people. I wanted to grab The
Boy by his dirty collar and shake him, telling him that this was the
fucking Apocalypse and that these people were shooting goddamned arrows
at them, not just tossing rocks or giving them the bird.



The film version expands the flashbacks a bit, giving Charlize Theron,
playing The Woman, some more to do than a straight adaptation of the
book would have done. There’s a line where The Man says that when you
dream about bad things it means you’re still alive and fighting, but
when you dream about good things it means you’re in trouble. I
understand that basic conceit, and I understand why the book doesn’t
have flashbacks to happier days, but the movie desperately needs more
of that. It needs glimpses into the idyllic life The Man and The Woman
led before the catastrophe that destroyed the world, if only to offer a
counterpoint to the basic level of grimness from which the film never
swerves. You need to have highs to fully feel the lows. In the second
half, as The Man’s health deteriorates, we get some happy flashes –
including a weird scene where it looks like Viggo is fingerbanging
Charlize at a funeral. Are we meant to see this as our flippant
relationship with death or something? – but they’re too little, too
late. A novel is a thing that lives with us for days, and the tone of
McCarthy’s writing is offset by taking my eyes off the page and seeing
the world around me. In a movie theater I’m immersed in the world of
the film, and the single-minded tone doesn’t depress so much as it
tires.



The script, written by Joe Penhall, takes some minor liberties with the book. Hillcoat’s last film, The Proposition, was a notably violent film. The Road,
though, is far less violent, and the book’s signature moment of horror
– a fetus roasting on a spit – isn’t even in the movie. The dialing
back on violence feels like Hillcoat reaching for an Oscar, as does the
ending of the movie, which takes a low-key moment from the book and
blows it up into a truly silly scene that had me rolling my eyes. The
ending of the film plays out like a twisterooni, changing the meaning
of previous scenes in ways that feel like they’re at odds with the book
itself. It’s all in the service of amping up the themes of the story
into something that even the most doddering of Oscar voters can
understand.



I wish that Penhall and Hillcoat had taken more liberties with the
book. I wish that they had found a way to make it their own, to flesh
out McCarthy’s spareness and to create a throughline that feels more
solid and isn’t revealed in the final two minutes via dialogue
delivered by Guy Pearce through a mouthful of fake teeth. Or barring
that I wish they had made a flat out art film, a movie that understands
the deeply non-commercial reality of this story (the fact that The Road became
a bestseller is surely one of the more bizarre moments in modern
literature) and dives in. Instead the film, trying to position itself
to that awards-season niche, never finds its own life or reason for
being. Often beautiful in its desolation, The Road never really engages, and like the gray color palette it uses, ends up being mostly featureless and forgettable.

6 out of 10