Wednesday 20 January 2010

Film Review: The Road

What to say about The Road? What to say about a book that touched its every reader that hasn't been iterated and reiterated a hundred times before, in a thousand different ways?

Like so many literary sorts, genre fans familiar with apocalyptic fiction as like as regular old souls who like a good tale to take to bed with them, Cormac McCarthy's landmark last novel left me speechless, breathless, hopeless. A short, sharp shock of a story, The Road told of a man and a boy clinging to one another at the end of the world. With every other sliver of hope lost to them, they go South, towards the sea; towards nowhere in particular and everything, all at once.

The man and the boy, on the road. McCarthy never names them, denies them, in fact, their identities in every sense but that which they derive from one another. They come across all manner of horrors left behind by the unnamed calamity that has made a hollow ruin of our Earth. Cannibals, thieves and animals are the least of it: mostly, the man and the boy encounter the eternal struggle for survival that life has become in the form of hunger. If they have any hope of reaching the end of the endless road, they must, of course, eat, except that untold years have passed since the world ended. There is little food left for them to scavenge.

Counter-intuitively, perhaps, for all the misery and isolation of McCarthy's Pulitzer prizewinner, it was, in the end, an uplifting sort of story. For all the cruel tragedy within its pages, The Road had a tender heart; for all its harsh reality, McCarthy wrote his simple, striking narrative with a soft touch.

Clearly, the source material of director John Hillcoat's latest film is dear to him, as much as it is to any of us; he has lavished upon his oft-delayed adaptation a great deal of care and attention. The dying Earth it is set against is very much the bleak, grey place McCarthy drew so bittersweetly in his novel. The man, and to a lesser extent the boy, both look and play their parts perfectly. The cannibals, thieves and animals are appropriately ugly and terrifying.

Ultimately, there's not much more to The Road than that, and the Australian filmmaker has rendered each of these things just so. All that he has neglected is the love, yet its absence leaves Hillcoat's first feature since The Proposition a mere shadow of its literary inspiration.

Joe Penhall's script hits all the significant narrative beats. The band of cannibals, the shoeless old man, the hatch mirage and the last can of Coke in the world; the encounters and the near misses are all accounted for. The vast majority of them even play out in accordance with the Punch and Judy shows we have all imagined, although those in the last act suffer some for their brevity. Largely, what Penhall has excised from his screenplay is the dead silence between the beats, but did not those long, atmospheric stretches of nothing play an integral part in making The Road such a memorable read?

In any event, despite a verbose and unnecessary explication on the relationship between the man, the boy and the wife, he makes a solid, if workmanlike effort at remaining faithful to McCarthy's fiction. Penhall's only outright misstep is the man's clipped voice-over narration, thankfully abandoned to the wastes halfway through the film's 100 minutes.

Viggo Mortensen turns in what could be the performance of a lifetime as the man; gaunt, grim and greasy, he is a fearful, selfish man, yet somehow, Mortensen also sells his selfless love for the boy, which shines through - a dim light in a dark, dark place - with every punishing step. Newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee, meanwhile, starts the piece weakly, but finds the truth of his character soon enough to save his debut, and inhabits the boy thereafter in a way, it hardly bears saying, few such young actors could.

Charlize Theron comes and goes without leaving much of an impression, though a nearly unrecognisable Robert Duvall makes the most of his supporting role; were it not such a small part, I suspect an Academy Award could well have been his. The rest of the cast equip themselves appropriately, but in the end, The Road is the story of a man and a boy, no more, no less.

In every respect but for one Hillcoat and his team have done an admirable, respectful job of realising The Road. It is an excellent, if unfortunately loveless film, and a particularly powerful film adaptation, marred only by comparison to such incredible source material that we'd have to daft to think an hour and a half of even the best cinema could ever match up to.

One last caveat before I go. If some strange happenstance has meant you've gone this long without reading arguably the best novel of the millennium to date, do yourself a favour: read the damn book before you see the film. The Road is otherwise a strong awards contender and a far more impressive feature than all the curious jiggery-pokery with the release date gave us reason to expect.


  1. This is one of the movies I am looking forward too. I believe that I will see the movie first, because for the moment my shopping list for books is on hold :)

  2. Don't do it, Mihai! The book is cheap as all that everywhere, barely 200 pages and a few evenings' reading at most. The film is great - it is - but the book is considerably more textured, more haunting.

  3. I would definitely experience the book first. The Road is a surprisingly quick read, and it grips you with a fierce intensity. The movie, while respectful of its source material, provides nothing that the book doesn't do better.

    That said, I still recommend watching the film. Viggo Mortensen always brings a haunting intensity to his characters, and The Road is no exception.

  4. @ Mihai

    I would agree with James and N.R. that reading the book first is almost mandatory. I've yet to see the movie, but I can't imagine that you won't benefit from the hundreds of little scenes that McCarthy created for the book. It'll be like having a road map.

    Although, I don't know if I hold "The Road" in the same regard as others, it was a fantastic read. And it goes by really quick.

  5. No worries :)
    It happened to me before, I've seen the movie first and then I discovered a much better book. It is valid the other way around though, the book I read isn't matched by the movie, or maybe is just me who expects more. Anyway, I find the books to be far more better and with only a few exceptions matched by their ecranizations. Definitely the movie will not spoil my reading if I see it first.
    Thank you for the recommendation :)

  6. Glad to see such a concensus developing. Better the book than the film is always a good rule of thumb to program your entertainment by.

  7. I almost always read the book before heading to the theater. The biggest exception would be Harry Potter. I missed the bus to start, mostly because I've always been more interested in epic fantasy than young adult fantasy. But various girlfriend things kept dragging me out to see the movies (which actually became interesting and enjoyable by the third installment). At this stage of the game, I've committed to watching the films before reading the books. Only a few more years to go, and then I can sit down and read these things, and perhaps see what all the fuss is about.