At The Picture Show
'The Road' to nowhere
McCarthy's postapocalyptic tale fails to take shape on the big screen
The Weinstein Company
Director: John Hillcoat
Screenplay: Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Michael K.
Williams, Garret Dillahunt and Guy Pearce
Rated R / 1 hour, 59 minutes
Opened in limited release November 25, 2009
(out of four)
The Road is a film without a purpose. From time to time it tries to manufacture one, tries to give
shape to what has become a futile exercise in postapocalyptic posturing. And yet finally it
leaves us without expressing anything about humanity, survival, fatherhood, the world at large.
It just kills time.
In literal terms, I can't say it does all that much different than its source material did. I read and
loved the Cormac McCarthy novel, and from what I can remember, the film adaptation holds
pretty closely to the events in the book. Both center on a father and son - or The Man and The
Boy - navigating a barren world years ago destroyed by some ambiguous Armageddon, any
semblance of civilization long since forgotten. The primary difference in the move is a
somewhat enhanced focus on the mother - who is only hinted at in the novel - in a series of
flashbacks. But that isn't the film's problem.
Thus the failure of The Road once again exposes the great fallacy
that an adaptation's strength lies in its fidelity. Only occasionally is that the case. Simply, this
film fails to find a reason to be, on its own terms.
Keep in mind it was made by the same man, John Hillcoat, who gave us the exceptional The
Proposition four years ago. Here, he can't seem to put his gifts to the same use. He is still able
to dazzle us with his visuals, creating a brownish-silver monochrome for an American wasteland
in which snow is virtually indistinguishable from ash.
The world is burning, stripped of color, populated by remnants of men reduced to their most
primal instincts. There are moments where all we can do is stare at the landscape and wonder
about the nature of mankind.
But just as quickly as those moments arise, they evaporate. We hop from episode to episode, the
man (Viggo Mortensen) protecting his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from bandits, robbers and
cannibals. Especially cannibals. They have one gun and two bullets left - "one for each of us,"
the father says. In case things go bad. Well, worse, anyway.
Home is a foreign concept, and the boy is all but completely
unfamiliar with anything but this kind of existence. His father is all that he has; the boy is all the
father lives for. Years earlier, the mother (Charlize Theron) walked out into the snowy
wilderness to a certain death, unable to bear the seeming inevitability of losing her child to the
same calamity that had already claimed most of civilization.
The man and the boy spend most of their time in hiding, scavenging for food when they can,
moving from place to place. There's a touching scene in which the man finds a dusty old can of
soda, and offers it to his boy. He accepts, but only if his dad will share it with him.
On the film's most basic conceits, we can connect all the dots - the indefatigable instinct to
survive, the will to protect, the need to retain the essence of humanity even in the face of
hopelessness. The Road hits all the beats we expect it to, but there's no force behind it.
When events are as spare as they are in this case, good movies get by on atmosphere and nuance,
but even in those areas, The Road is lacking. The bleakness seems more like window dressing.
It is not mournful, it is not depressing; it does not even invoke a sense of fear or tragedy within
this hopeless future. In fact, it doesn't really invoke a sense of anything, but just plows along,
hoping that all of this will mean something by the time we get to the end. But it doesn't. The
film gets by with only intermittent dialogue and action, but doesn't find much to fill the spaces
Actually, as spare as the dialogue is, it almost feels like the film
would have been better with even less of it - or none at all. Naturally, most audiences wouldn't
go for something like that, so it's probably beside the point. But when you take a look at the
thick grayness of this washed-away future, you get the feeling that an entire film could be built
solely around this world in and of itself - a film driven only by images, by sound and silence,
glances and physical touch between father and son replacing the need for words.
Perhaps I'm saying that because the film, in its efforts to have a real narrative, ends up lacking
any narrative flow. The mood is regularly disturbed by not-always-necessary dialogue -
including a recurring discussion between the two about "carrying the fire," a thread straight out
of the novel but which on film comes across as unsuitably Hallmark-ish. In a flashback, we hear
the man telling his wife and son, "I will protect you, whatever it takes!" - and the line just seems
superfluous. The narration, too, is an unwelcome intrusion.
The Road does earn its share of small victories. Its refusal to throw in a neat explanation for the
world's destruction, for one. Specific moments between father and son, for another. But when it
all comes down to it, this is a story about the deepest elements of humanity in a time when all
humanity seems to have been lost - and yet somehow the film can find nothing to say about that,
and nothing to feel.
Read more by Chris Bellamy