'The Road' to Failure
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Making a movie of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" was a bad idea from the get-go. But after the success of "No Country for Old Men," and given the current appetite for cinematic apocalypse, Hollywood couldn't resist cashing in on what smelled like a hot property. The long-shelved result feels as if it's been fussed over by desperate demographers, struggling to make this grim end-of-the-world odyssey fit some impossible marketing paradigm. People may queue up to ride the apocalyptic roller coaster of "2012." But who wants to celebrate Thanksgiving and the birth of Christ by watching a kid and his dad stumble through a ruined world nothing and no one can save?
Still, what remains of "The Road" is an honorable failure, given there was never any real hope of translating McCarthy's style-driven novel into film. And it's far from the car crash it might have been if, say, euphemized by a Ron Howard or blood-spattered by an Eli Roth. Director John Hillcoat showed a real feeling for wasteland vistas, hinterland savagery and blood bonding among outcasts in "The Proposition," an Australian Western that seemed to play out on the edge of the world. And he makes an honest effort to deploy those gifts to good effect in "The Road."
In the aftermath of some unidentified global catastrophe, every earthly landscape has gone gray, drained of all color and life. (Shooting mostly in Pennsylvania woods and fields, cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe frames one hauntingly beautiful image of decomposition after another.) Trudging through empty towns, past human and animal bone heaps, numb to the familiar thunk of one more tree falling, a tattered scarecrow (Viggo Mortensen) and his tenderhearted child (Kodi Smit-McPhee) press on -- to what end?
Mortensen projects his usual earnest authenticity, but it's a one-note, wearying performance, undermined by his almost total lack of chemistry with Smit-McPhee. The latter looks uncannily like Charlize Theron, who plays, in flashbacks, the mother who long ago lost any sustaining faith in the face of hell on earth. That's the idea, anyway, but Theron comes off more as an annoying whiner than a woman who simply has no life force left in her.
Survival is a thankless, dead-end religion for man and boy. They might be Beckett characters hunting down Godot. Keeping his son alive is a warrant of God's existence for the Man, though the devolution of his world would argue against that illusion. And on some level the Boy has already begun to deify his guardian-father. The two prop each other up in the belief that they are "good guys," that such a distinction matters when there is no food, no sanctuary, no future.
A nightmare entourage right out of "Mad Max" and a farmhouse-larder full of half-alive human food provide horrific glimpses into subhuman survival of the fittest. Chasing Mortensen and his boy into the woods, Garret Dillahunt, go-to actor for weirded-out depravity, zeroes in on the child, aiming a starving demon's glare at fresh meat. That threat has teeth, but the farmhouse cannibals and their captive amputees don't rise above "Hostel" or the latest zombie flick.
In memory, the Man escapes present-day grinding cold and hunger; you can feel Hillcoat straining to make you feel the absence of sunshine, flowers, skin caressing skin: the paradise we take for granted. But the contrast seems schematic and mechanical. Even when Man and Boy discover a bunker stocked with food, soap, lanterns, etc., what should be visceral pleasure seems announced rather than felt in the flesh.
This pilgrims' progress goes way off track when Robert Duvall drops in as a grizzled old wanderer with lots of philosophical ham to share; and I do not mean the kind that tickles the taste buds. He's a harbinger of what comes at the end of "The Road." Flat-out false in feeling and tone, the climactic family reunion sells out what measure of uncompromising truth the film has managed to achieve.
What the studio suits failed to notice is that the radical power of McCarthy's masterpiece was primarily generated by its sculpted, high-tension style, not merely its absorbing chronicle of earth's end days. Very much in the Hemingway tradition, McCarthy pares sentences down to the awful beauty of bone, describing every action in the kind of obsessive detail that signals madness contained in ritual, the necessary processes of survival. Each chapter of "The Road" added cumulatively to the metastasizing, biblical horror of the characters' predicament, until reading became almost unbearable. Movies are capable of much, but this kind of meaning-making can't be brought to the screen.
"The Road" should have been imagined in irradiated black and white, like the post-nuclear environment in Arch Oboler's low-budget "Five" or the deranged graveyard of George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead." Hillcoat's road to perdition may be dark and depressing, but the conventional despair that drives this journey stops short of grief that breaks the heart and horror that freezes the soul. Guess the suits figured we can't handle the truth.
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.