Those expecting 2010 to herald a new era of cinema will have to be sorely disappointed on one front, as The Road, a film adaptation of the critically-acclaimed novel by No Country For Old Men writer Cormac McCarthy, hits the screens.
A tale of humanity’s survival in the aftermath of a devastating, unexplained apocalypse, The Road stars Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as a father and son who must journey southwards, through the debris of a dead civilisation, in time for the coming winter. Man and boy together must contend with cannibals, the elements, and malnutrition as they pursue their goal in this dusty, decrepit world.
From the start, director John Hillcoat has a lot to contend with. While he is one of the best possible choices to helm such a film, having attracted plenty of attention with his Australian Western The Proposition in 2005, The Road is – more than most novels adapted for screen – defined by its textual style.
In the book, McCarthy adopts an unadorned, straightforward form of prose that gleams with a Biblical austerity. This imbues his world, characters and situation with a subtle, chilling quality that is remarkably versatile; as the un-named Man and Boy traverse the dead landscape, the book traverses multiple tones, from touching moments of bonding, to gripping scenes of horror, and perspectives, blending dream, reality and nightmare with a consistent, light, sombre touch.
Film, by the very nature of the camera, is more expressive, so much of this mysterious, hazy quality is lost. Hillcoat, in collaboration with a superb production team that includes Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Talk To Her cinematographer, Javier Aguirresarobe, have to show just as much as they tell. To that end, they create an utterly beguiling and believable world made up of well-scouted and well-dressed locations across Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Oregon. These vistas are both alien and familiar, and are horrific in their deserted silence, with a soundscape of creaking branches, howling winds and crashing trees. The stark photography, with its knotted overpasses and ghostly towns, will stick with you.
In motion, however, The Road feels jagged, uneven and overloaded. Thankfully, this is not the disaster movie that pre-release trailers suggested, but without the sturdy bass-line of the written word, the film sways wildly. Moments of emotional outpouring become mini-melodramas, as Mortensen employs his best rugged, intense chops and Smit-McPhee ably lapses into wails of sorrow. Scenes that develop the tender, subtly shifting relationship between the duo are touching and moving, and flashbacks involving estranged wife Charlize Theron are extended, posing more answers than questions, before once more erupting into hopeless angst.
It feels inconsistent, even jarring, and much of the quiet mystery and surrealism is swapped for higher emotional peaks, but shallower stylistic depths. Most of the book’s allegorical, poetic aspects are crystallised into a simpler narrative about the father and son. This is an understandable shift, as the characters in the book were avatars; here, they are more real, thanks to the strong, full-bodied performances. However, the protagonists’ encounters with other survivors (Robert Duvall’s Old Man, or Michael K. Williams’ Thief) lack some of the novel’s haunting discord, playing out more straightforwardly, like steps on their journey.
That said, there is one sequence where Hillcoat and crew use the medium of cinema to elevate the content above that of the book, involving the pair happening upon a large mansion inhabited by cannibals. Using the camera’s viewpoint deftly, the scene progresses through a dual perspective, as small visual cues (and clues) become apparent – meat hooks, pools of blood – and create an unbearable tension as they discover the house’s cellar, and venture inside. Such a scene is powerful and distinct, but it is not enough to make The Road a must-see.
This is not to say that Hillcoat’s work is a bad film. It is certainly affecting and accomplished, and those unfamiliar with the source material will still be moved. However, it is a deficient adaptation, and a pure example of how such shifts in medium can bring to light the flaws of the target artform.
While The Road is not without its impressive aspects, it has not efficiently pulled taut the slack created by the loss of McCarthy’s commanding prose. And so, it is hard to avoid the sense that it needn’t have been made at all.