Kicking the Tweets

Entries in Road/The [2009] (1)


The Road (2009)

Ash Ye Shall Receive

Typically, when I can’t stand the film adaptation of a book, I recommend that the potential moviegoer skip it and head straight for the source material. With John Hillcoat’s The Road, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, I find myself in the weird position of having found the film to be an utterly faithful interpretation—yet still recommending the book instead.

The problem here is that Hillcoat has literally brought McCarthy’s vivid post apocalyptic landscapes and tales of hard living to life; the imagery and situations are almost exactly as I imagined them in the novel.

“Isn’t that a good thing?” you might ask.

Yes, and no.

The Road is a bleak spectacle of ash-covered landscapes, dead prairies and human remains strewn across America; like the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, Hillcoat’s movie fetishizes texture—particularly grimy texture. The meticulous details of dirt on jackets, under finger nails, and in the crevices of crow’s feet make every shot look like a painting; there are lovely bursts of contrasts whenever The Man (Viggo Mortenson) flashes back to his life before the end of the world: all green and golden loveliness, plus Charlize Theron’s warm smile. So, yes, one can certainly marvel at the sights.

However, the storytelling—wonderful as it is in terms of plot and meaning—becomes a chore after awhile. As in the book, there are long stretches of walking, foraging and sleeping. As The Man and his son, The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), make their way South in search of warmth—or at least hope—they occasionally encounter bandits and cannibals, and the odd drifter. Their encounters range from violent to mundane, and the mundane ones are almost too much to bear; I’m thinking of their encounter with Old Man (Robert Duvall), which plays as filler in the movie, a chance to inject some exposition about the possible cause of the disaster that I don’t recall being in the book. Even Guy Pearce seemed overtaken with boredom when he popped up towards the end, reciting his lines as if he’d gone totally Method and forgotten to eat for six weeks.

What it all comes down to is that, for me, the surprises in The Road were much more powerful in the book; scenes like the bomb shelter and the house with clothes piled high in the living room were punctuations of action in a story that focused much more on ideas (such as hours and minutes being completely irrelevant in the end times). The movie kind of touches on these with The Man’s spotty narration, but watching the film wasn’t the kind of deeply personal experience that reading the book was. I guess it’s like the difference between reading a poem and having someone read it to you; the material is the same, but the difference in experience is profound.

This may be the most awkward positive review I’ve written. If you’ve read The Road, sure, check out the movie; Mortensen does a fantastic job embodying the fear and instinctual resolve of The Man. Kodi Smit-McPhee is serviceable, but is perhaps a bit too realistic in his constant whining and tantrum-throwing. If you’ve neither seen the movie nor read the book, please read the novel first! Then, if you’re so compelled, see the movie on the big screen; don’t wait for video. This is the rare film that does the source material nearly absolute justice, and in doing so ends up as a curiosity rather than a new and engaging experience.

Note: Though I appreciate Charlize Theron's presence in the movie, I can't help but think that her star power is behind the inclusion of so many flashbacks involving her character. She was barely in the novel, and I think it would have been a much more powerful choice to relegate her to one, maybe two glimpses on screen. One interlude in particular--involving her dress and her husband's hand--didn't belong in the same movie as the rest of the story; not even in the same universe; the filmmakers went for a cute, hot moment and ended up with the cinematic equivalent of a record scratch.