Directed by John Hillcoat
Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce
The world has been devastated by an unknown cataclysmic event. All crops have withered and the only food sources left to the few survivors are the meagre remains that have to be painfully scavenged…or cannibalism. A father and his son push a shopping cart of their possessions south through the wasteland in hope for a warmer climate, a gun with two bullets being their only defence. The father (Viggo Mortensen) lived in the once-civilised world and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) was born in the early days of the fallout. The man must teach his boy about love, truth and beauty in a dying planet where mankind has long forgotten such things, ultimately the boy becoming his father’s only hope in a hopeless world.
The adaptation of one of the most profound and powerful books of the last decade to the big screen was always going to be a careful and scary business. Cormac McCarthy’s novel is considered a masterpiece of modern literature and there have been both hits and misses with adapting his work for cinema. The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men was a work of unquestionable genius while Billy Bob Thornton’s All The Pretty Horses was a clumsy washout. Fears of The Road being mishandled were fuelled by years of delayed filming and continually-pushed release dates, a hint that the Weinstein Company was unhappy and decided to meddle. Such interference typically doesn’t add to the quality of a film, just a greater universal appeal favoured by financers. But anxious fans of McCarthy can now rest assured; The Road is in good hands and only a slight taint of Hollywood intrusion can be noticed.
The beauty of the filmic version of The Road is its careful treatment of what makes the novel such a great work of fiction. McCarthy’s stripped-back prose style removed wordy, unnecessary descriptions and punctuation to make what was included all the more powerful. The words were as equally poetic and philosophical as direct and mechanical, never focusing on a specific theme, characterisation or even a specific point. The film, like the novel, unceremoniously drives its characters through different hells and lets their responses speak for themselves. Little artistic embellishment is employed, rarely is any topic or actor the focus of the screen time, and the music of Warren Ellis and Nick Cave is scant and minimalist. Nothing of unique or inventive production stands out, the cinematography being as bare as the script and colours restricted to greys and weathered blues and browns. Several epic, sweeping CGI shots of the desolate landscape feel like fluoro at a grunge gig, jarring and unnecessary and don’t work in such a personal film. Hello Hollywood. Their saving grace is that that many of the shots were digitally rendered versions of real aerial footage of the fallout of hurricane Katrina. Amazing. Almost every subtle feature of The Road works in harmony to create a dark and realistic atmosphere.
Australian director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) and screenwriter Joe Penhall have approached the potent material well, keeping the dialogue between the characters to the essential. Young Australian Smit-McPhee and veteran Mortensen are perfectly cast, handling tough emotional scenes and engaging with their extraordinary characters brilliantly. Several gripping moments of the book become more horrifying when they are seen on screen, such as a quick lesson in suicide given to the boy by his father or the constant and vital readiness of the man to euthanise his son when the badguys come too close. Seeing the shocking exit of the exhausted wife who haunts the man’s memories (Charlize Theron) and her discussions with the pleading husband are just as powerful as the novel recites: “There was no argument. The hundred nights they had sat up arguing the pros and cons of self destruction with the earnestness of philosophers chained to a madhouse wall.” Such dark images are treated with an almost journalistic coldness in the film that makes them shocking and true to the intention of the book. Robert Duvall is remarkable and almost unrecognisable as an old man on the road who the boy petitions his father to help. Guy Pearce is amusingly typecast as the redeeming hero in a short cameo, though he too is almost unrecognisable in this world.
The Road is a simple film of profound beauty. While far from being the masterpiece of its source material, it engages the ideas of the original story carefully and with few emotion-grabbing visual effects or awkward overly-artistic cinematography. The bare, beautiful poetry of the book is all that is relied upon to tell a great tale and is presented with care and an almost biblical reverence. McCarthy fans or otherwise will find the film gripping from start to finish, following two souls as they carry the fire in the midst of unrelenting horror and hopelessness. The Road raises questions of God, the fragility of our earth and the cruel nature of humanity while at the same time quietly celebrates the miracle of that rare human tenacity to always hope, always persevere. This is simply the first must-see film of the year.
You will love this if: You think a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with cannibals is a great place to raise a child.
You will hate this if: You have reservations about high-level suicide themes.
The Road opens January 28th in cinemas everywhere