Directed by: John Hillcoat
Screenplay by: Joe Penhall
Based on the novel by: Cormac McCarthy
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker and Charlize Theron
Shortly before The Road hit theatres, I rushed out to find a copy of the novel. As an afternoon read, the book left my mind with profoundly disturbing images of cannibalism, a dead Earth and mass suicides. For the sake of my sanity, I decided to take an intermission before engaging The Road as film. As a novel that lives on in my mind, even a year after its inaugural read, I was curious to see if anybody would have the courage to do The Road properly on film. The worst case scenario for a poor adaptation of The Road is a Thunderdome-esque farce. The Road done well would take the horrors that Cormac McCarthy’s words evoked in my mind and add a few exponents to the equation. It turns out that John Hillcoat’s treatment of The Road is, most certainly, The Road done very well.
On the surface, The Road is a story that questions the idea of survival. At one end of the spectrum is The Man (Viggo Mortensen). The Man wants to survive while maintaining some of his humanity. For example, he assures his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) that they would never resort to cannibalism no matter how dire the situation. This moral stance allows for some Machinist style weight loss as seen when Viggo shows off his disturbingly gaunt frame. The real challenge to the idea of survival comes not from the various cannibals, but from The Man’s wife (Charlize Theron). After giving birth to The Boy amid the apocalypse and then enduring it for a number of years, she opts for suicide. For her, and many others in the film, mere survival is not enough. Even The Man carries a revolver with two bullets, one for himself and one for The Boy, should the need arise. Though Theron’s mother character only appears in a handful of flashbacks, she raises some of the film’s most interesting questions. Should she have killed her son and spared him the horrors of the world gone to hell? Is day-to-day survival worth enduring if your demise will likely include rape and dismemberment?
While The Road is a story about survival, it is also a cautionary tale about the environment. Neither McCarthy’s book nor the film posits the reasons behind the apocalypse. Following in the novel’s footsteps, Hillcoat focuses on the aftermath rather than the cause. This results in beautifully crafted location shots that present a world replete with dead trees, rivers of bright yellow water and an eternally grey sky. As such, The Road is more than a story about how humanity will survive; it quite plainly illustrates the fragility of our planet’s ecosystem. Consider that the vast forests of dead tress symbolize the overall death of the Earth’s plant life. Without that plant life the entire system collapses. Even after city dwellers die of starvation, there is no chance for small scale subsistence farming for the remaining people. Humanity necessarily becomes the snake that eats its own tail because we neglected to protect plant life.
While the camera work does a brilliant job at creating a deep reservoir of subtext, the soul of the story would have been lost were it not for the superb performance of the principle cast. Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of the godly but cold hearted protagonist was utterly perfect with respect to the source material. In my mind, Charlize Theron had the most difficult character of the cast: the realist who embraces suicide and is willing to take her child with her as an act of love. On an emotional level, how do you account for a character whose acts and intentions are anathema to contemporary thought? Even young Kodi Smit-McPhee was brilliant in his characterization of the last vestiges of decency and compassion in a world gone terribly wrong.
After scrutinizing the film for flaws, very little stands out as poorly put together. There are a few slight divergences from the novel in terms of the narrative, but nothing that is really worth mentioning. While the novel’s religious undertones were present in the film, they didn’t seem all that relevant. Also, the film ends in typical fashion for a Cormac McCarthy inspired production; it simply stops at the end. There’s no real resolution to The Road because there’s no real conflict. However, I’m not sure if that is a flaw, per se. The film, much like the book, is a window into a possible future. Both McCarthy and Hillcoat leave it to the audience to connect the dots on their own. I like that in a story, others may not.
The only question that remains is why did The Road do so poorly at the box office? According to IMDB the film had a twenty million dollar budget but barely grossed eight million, domestically. Likely, people were scared away by the subject matter. Not a lot of people want to start their weekend with a dose of Armageddon. Yet, stories that force us to imagine ourselves stripped of everything but our human decency do more than put us out of our comfort zone. Through its visceral images, The Road demonstrates the fragility of both humanity and the planet. The natural response to something fragile is not fear, but the desire to protect it. While McCarthy uses extremes to illustrate this point, the message is evident. While The Road might feel depressing, it serves as a stunning contrast to this world and a reminder to protect the little things in life.
Overall Score: +4