Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
December 2009

'The Road' to nowhere

McCarthy's postapocalyptic tale fails to take shape on the big screen

The Road
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 between.

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

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