Review: The Road

Director: John Hillcoat

Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Viggo Mortensen

***originally written 11 January 2010***

Film adaptations of literary fiction are a tricky thing to do right. How do you condense a novel, with all of it’s subtle nuances, into two hours of mass-consumable entertainment? Especially something like The Road, a book which already has quite a following, a word-of-mouth success that introduced many – myself included – to the outstanding work of Cormac McCarthy. A book that lives on it’s palpable atmosphere of fragile hope amidst remorseless despair. How does this become a bankable success? Chances are it won’t. So I came to The Road with excitement and also scepticism.
That it opens with a departure from the text was disconcerting – we’re introduced to the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) before the undisclosed apocalyptic event has taken place. Charlize Theron plays the Man’s pessimistic wife, in a role greatly exaggerated from that in the novel to befit a star actress’ involvement. And for the first third of the movie we jump back and forth in time, from the technicolour past to the decimated future, in which America has been destroyed, nothing grows, and the Man and Boy scour the landscape for food, shelter and safety from the cannibals that roam the road.

These ‘new’ scenes actually work well and feel true to the original story. The summation of unspoken conversations in McCarthy’s pages. Their scattered inclusion may break up the narrative a little, but then The Road is episodic in nature, and for a while they help mask this fact. Theron’s eventual exit from the storyline is as evocative as it is simple. From there on for the most part we’re left with just Mortensen and Smit-McPhee.

They do well. Mortensen’s method approach to his work makes his version of the Man bankable. He looks the part and carries the film with sincere (if austere) ease. Smit-McPhee was a main concern. Child actors having a history of being either irritating or fucking creepy. Fortunately he is neither. And the bond between them is cemented early. This is, afterall, a story about parenthood.

Director John Hillcoat has also realised McCarthy’s destroyed world to a T. There seem to be a fair few post-apocalyptic films around recently, but Hillcoat’s feels the most real. In fact it’s only when the CG comes out for a couple of ‘wow’ shots that the spell is partially broken. I haven’t seen his previous film, The Proposition, but on this evidence Hillcoat seems like a man with whom material can be trusted, unafraid to hold back where others might reach for sentimentality or sensationalism. Much like McCarthy’s sparse prose.

He is also remarkably faithful to the text, with only minor changes after the first third has drawn you in. The basement sequence from the book is recreated with pulse-racing intensity. The eaten baby is understandably gone, replaced with a sequence which is arguably more in tone with the rest of the story. Robert Duvall, Guy Pierce and Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire) make interesting guest spots along the way. Like the Coen Brothers with No Country For Old Men, Hillcoat values his source material and has interpreted it with care.

In the end if there are failings here they come merely from the material being more effective in the mind’s eye, a problem that dogs nearly all literary adaptations. Hillcoat is also faithful to the ending, giving a solemn ray of hope instead of the kind of energetic rollercoaster ride or chase sequence that many may be expecting from the trailer. In short, it’s a good movie. As good a movie as any fans of the book could have expected. And like the book, it’s sombre, reflective, bleak as hell.

Read the book if you can. But if not, this is a better-than-average watch. And that’s all I was hoping for.

7 of 10

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