DIRECTED BY: John Hillcoat
STARRING: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall
THERE is much to admire in John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. First off, fair play to him for taking on such an immense task.
He had to know well the kind of expectation he was shouldering – not only from the fans of McCarthy’s great novel but also from the much wider community of movie lovers who saw what a fine job the Coen brothers made of McCarthy’s other recent masterpiece, No Country For Old Men.
Inevitably perhaps, Hillcoat’s film is a disappointment. Not because it is terribly unfaithful to the book, as such. Anyone who’s read The Road will know that with it’s stripped-down prose, unforgettably vivid imagery and sparse but perfect dialogue, any intending filmmaker would be spared at least one major task – because the screenplay would almost write itself.
And sure enough, Hillcoat and playwright Joe Penhall follow its course almost to a tee, ticking most of the major boxes along the way. The problem is, that’s exactly what it feels like they were doing – merely ticking boxes and moving on to the next without taking the time to linger, to explore, to get closer to the horror, to dig deeper into the characters – or as one old timer put it, to milk every scene for everything it’s worth.
And so they’ve lost some of the heart and soul of the book. But worse, unlike the Coens – who skipped over a few crucial details in their own McCarthy adaptation – they’ve failed to make a film that is truly memorable in its own right.
The Road is set in a not-too-distant future, when the world (or America, anyway) has been devastated by some catastrophic event that is not shown and never named. Everything has been destroyed, fires still rage across the country, plant life and animal life are dead. And so are most of the people.
The few left alive scavenge for what food they can find – or hunt down other survivors to eat.
The Man (Mortensen) and The Boy (Smit-McPhee) are heading south to escape the worst of the winter, following an old map to the sea. By day they walk the road and search abandoned buildings for food, clothing, or anything else that might be useful – a cart with decent wheels to haul their belongings and a few drops of oil to keep their lantern burning.
By night they take shelter wherever they find it – empty homes, an old church, the cab of a jack-knifed truck. And always they keep one eye out for the savages who stalk the road.
Often, The Man dreams of The Woman (Theron), the wife and mother who walked away when she couldn’t face it anymore. And now he keeps a gun by his side, loaded with two bullets. “One for me,” he tells The Boy, “and one for you”. And by that, he doesn’t mean they’re going to take turns shooting the bad guys.
Hillcoat tells it all faithfully and there are times when it works. The encounter with the Old Man (Duvall) is moving, as is the scene with the thief (Michael K Williams), both of which hint at the deep and often conflicted relationship between The Man and The Boy that was the heart of the book but which Hillcoat never manages to fully develop. His visuals, too, are impressive – some of them haunting in their awful beauty.
But too many of what you might call McCarthy’s set pieces – the passages that seared themselves on to your mind – simply don’t get the treatment they cried out for.
With his poor pacing and disregard for drama, the director merely makes you squirm when you should be horrified – like any of the scenes involving the cannibals (I’ve seen scarier rednecks in Tennessee), or when the man and boy find the naked prisoners in the cellar. And he makes you just kind of smile, when your heart should be broken – like the underground bomb shelter sequence, or the moment when The Boy takes his first drink of Coke.
And while you never doubt that their situation is miserable, depressing and probably hopeless in the end, what’s missing is any real sense of dread, the constant fear that should pursue them down the road, haunting every step they take.
Mortensen and Smit-McPhee do a decent enough job as the desperate, dispassionate father and scared, compassionate son but there’s a strange lack of genuine chemistry in the on-screen relationship, which probably has less to do with the actors than it has with the lukewarm script and hurried direction.
A missed opportunity, then, to craft something great. Better to go out and pick up the book instead.