Cormac McCarthy is not an easy author to adapt from page to screen.
Each of his books seems to pose a different challenge to screenwriters and directors, too, and so there's no one answer for how to crack the problem of bringing his books to the bigscreen. I think the Coens did a tremendous job with "No Country For Old Men," and there are parts of "All The Pretty Horses" that work very well, even if the film as a whole is sort of a heavily-manhandled mess as it was released.
"The Road" was a very different type of challenge, and it's one that I'm not sure John Hillcoat mastered. He makes a valiant attempt, but the ways the film frustrated me as a viewer suggest that the job just plain got away from him, and as an end result, I think the film is muted, half-hearted, and dissatisfying, and one of the year's big heartbreaks, all things considered.
There is, after all, a long and healthy tradition of post-apocalyptic cinema, some of it trashy, some of it more serious-minded, and there are certainly classics in the genre that are hard to beat. For "The Road" to stand apart from what's come before, it needed to find a particular angle on the material that we haven't seen before, or contribute something new to the language of how the ruined world might be portrayed on film. The dirty secret of McCarthy's justly-acclaimed novel is that the appeal does not lie in the story being told, but in how that story is told. It's not what happens... it's the way McCarthy tells it. "The Road" is all about language, about the evocative nature of how McCarthy paints his picture, and the spare emotional detail. It's a powerhouse of a book, but it's not especially a powerhouse of a story.
Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee co-star as a nameless Father and Son who find themselves wandering through a landscape ruined by some unspecified end of the world, and that's about all the plot there is to the film. They encounter people along the way, some hostile, some not, and they try to find a way to survive while retaining some essential humanity in the process. From time to time, Viggo flashes back to his life before the world fell apart, and we get glimpses of the nameless Mother, played by Charlize Theron, as she slowly gives in to despair and fear. Viggo struggles to protect some small part of his son's innocence, even as he keeps him safe, and the process slowly but surely wears him down as a man and as a father.
Joe Penhall's script certainly covers most of the main events from the book, but it never figures out a way to translate the poetry of McCarthy's language into some sort of film equivalent. The problem is just as much a problem for John Hillcoat, whose film "The Proposition" proved him to be more than willing to indulge extreme violence and disturbing imagery. This entire film is oddly muted, and the roughest edges of McCarthy's book have been rounded off completely. What remains relies entirely on the chemistry between Mortensen and his young co-star if it's going to work, and how you respond will no doubt depend on how much you respond to what happens between the two of them. That's a problem for me, because as well-intentioned as I can tell he is, Smit-McPhee just doesn't have the chops to make the role work, and so no matter how hard Viggo works, no matter how much he acts his ass off in scene after scene, I don't really buy the connection between them, and so I don't buy the emotion that is so obviously meant to hit the viewer right where they live.
There are cameos by some very accomplished actors along the way, like Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce and Molly Parker and the great Garret Dillahunt and the also great Michael K. Williams, and all of them register in their brief onscreen time, but none of them really have a moment that pops or stands out. It's all played at low volume, with a perpetual murk created by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe that certainly sets a mood. It's technically accomplished, and the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis offers subtle support throughout, but for all the class and all the style of the film, it feels inert. You can throw all the best people in the business at something, and it still doesn't guarantee that the film will work, and "The Road" seems to be a textbook case of that.
It's a shame, but not entirely unexpected. "The Road" was always an unlikely blockbuster as a book, and as a film, it's been robbed of the precise things that made it special in the first place, leaving behind a shadow, a mere suggestion of what it could have been.
"The Road" opens in limited release on November 25th.
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