The Road


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Something important went missing in the filmic translation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” by director John Hillcoat.  Hillcoat’s “The Proposition,” a smart, grueling Western set in 1880s Australia caught the eye of “The Road” producer Nick Wechsler, who imagined that the filmmaker could recapture the terrible beauty of Hillcoat’s 2005 success.  This time around, Hillcoat capably visualizes the grim death of civilization, but “The Road” strings together a series of almost self-contained episodes that rob the story of momentum.

Like “Mad Max,” “28 Days Later,” “Children of Men,” “I Am Legend,” and 2009’s “Terminator Salvation,” “Zombieland,” and “2012,” “The Road” is another entry in the post-apocalypse filmmaking derby that has become a staple of several genres.  “The Road” leans heavily and needlessly on the weary voiceover of protagonist Viggo Mortensen, known metonymically as the Man, who leads his son, the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), through a devastated landscape populated with cannibalistic scavengers.  Neither book nor film offers a specific explanation of the cataclysm that wiped out most plant and animal life, a choice that should focus one’s attention on the emotional relationship of father and son instead of the doomsday spectacle.

Joe Penhall’s screenplay hews closely to the events in McCarthy’s novel, but Charlize Theron, who appears in several flashbacks as Mortensen’s wife, plays a much larger role in the film version.  Along with sun-dappled visions of happier times, including a pastoral glimpse of the Man and his horse and a surreptitious grope during a public music performance, these interludes presumably break up the monotony of the Man’s quest to reach the rumored safety of the coast.  A perfunctory birthing scene – which should have intensified the inevitable and impending horror awaiting the newborn – is vexingly ordinary.  McCarthy has been parsed and criticized for ignoring women, but Theron’s duties in the movie add little to the present-tense immediacy of the father and son ordeal.

The most interesting carryover from the novel considers whether the Man is, as the Boy hopes, “one of the good guys,” and Hillcoat flirts with the question in a handful of scenes in which the Man makes starkly cruel choices, presumably to defend his son.  In one, Robert Duvall makes a cameo appearance as a decrepit traveler upon whom the Boy takes pity.  Duvall hangs around long enough to gush vomit and share some cryptic wisdom (not necessarily in that order, although it doesn’t really matter), but the Man refuses to offer him anything beyond canned fruit cocktail.  In another passage, the Man humiliates a would-be thief (Michael Kenneth Williams), divesting him of everything he needs in order to survive.

Unfortunately, Hillcoat doesn’t explore the Man’s impossible decisions, and since the audience is invited to identify with his role as a whatever-it-takes guardian and protector, the Man metaphorically assumes a Christ-like mien, especially as the magnitude of his sacrifice approaches its final moments.  Viewers unfamiliar with the novel might be more forgiving of the director’s handling of both the plot elements and the voice of the Man, but admirers of McCarthy’s unmistakable prose will flinch when exchanges that were stony on the page melt into goopy puddles.

This review was published originally for Southpawfilmworks the week of 1/4/10.

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