The Road

poster

theatrical poster, copyright 2009 Dimension Films

company: Dimension Films
year: 2009
runtime: 112′
country: United States
director: John Hillcoat
cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee,
Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker,
Michael K. Williams, Charlize Theron
writer: Joe Penhall, from the
novel by Cormac McCarthy
cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe
order the novel from Amazon.com
The Road is currently in theatres in the USA

Plot: A father and son wander the blasted remnants of the United States after an unnamed cataclysm destroys civilization and most life on Earth.

It’s always unfortunate when the best word I can think of to describe a new film is “underwhelming”.  That’s not to say that John Hillcoat’s film isn’t a noble attempt at bringing the award-winning Cormac McCarthy source novel from 2006 to the screen, but I couldn’t help but feel that twinge of dissatisfaction when the end credits finally rolled.

To be fair, The Road gets plenty right.  The major success of the picture is in its depiction of the apocalyptic landscape the unidentified father and son (Mortensen and Smit-McPhee respectively) traverse.  Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Goya’s Ghosts and, it pains me to say, the latest entry in the Twilight series) captures the many locations (from Pennsylvania to the truly other-worldly Mount St. Helens, looking as much like the end of the world as it did the summer of 1980) brilliantly and allows Hillcoat to present his desolate world with a minimum of computer trickery.

As important as the cinematography is the sound design.  There is near constant noise, be it of wind, rain, or the deep rumblings of a world still in the process of tearing itself apart.  When coupled with Aguirresarobe’s images and an understated score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis the illusion is complete, and I doubt any viewer will be able to argue that The Road‘s vision of the sunless gray future is anything less than unsettling.

There’s also nothing overtly wrong with The Road‘s depiction of its sparse drama.  The father and son encounter a number of threats throughout, including a family who keeps people huddled like animals in their basement while slowly harvesting their limbs for food, but violence is kept to a minimum.  The high points of the story are undoubtedly the few quiet moments in which the father and son are simply allowed to be themselves, given brief respite from the dangers we know could be lurking just beyond their, and our, range of sight.

The father is understandably protective, dedicating his life to the survival of his son after his wife commits suicide, and is instinctively distrustful of anyone who crosses their path.  Aware that he is dying, the father knows that his ability to fulfill his duty is dwindling as much as their arsenal – a single pistol loaded with their last two rounds of ammunition.  He sees a glimmer of hope for the future  in the naiveté of his son, who wishes to help everyone they pass (a thief, a dying old man), but realizes the immense danger it poses in this harsh new reality.  As far the father is concerned, charity is dead.

Both Mortensen and Smit-McPhee work well in their respective roles.  Their performances are honest, and neither succumbs to the temptation to be overly dramatic.  Other characters are few and far between, and most have no lines at all.  A fine exception is Robert Duvall as an elderly man named Eli, near death and almost blind, who is invited to stay with the father and son for a night.

That so much is right with The Road makes it all the harder for me to place just what is wrong with it.  I’ve not read McCarthy’s source so I can’t speak for how faithfully it was adapted here (I know that the role of the mother is expanded considerably, albeit in flashback).  There just seems to be something missing from the equation, something that keeps all of The Road‘s accomplishments from coalescing into a satisfying whole.  It’s a picture that strives hard for depth and resonance, but that rings hollow in the end.

Dimension has pushed back the release for The Road numerous times over the past year and a half, and its latest push to the 25th of this month is assumed in some circles to be an attempt at improving its Oscar potential.  Perhaps the Weinsteins are hoping for a repeat of No Country for Old Men‘s earlier Academy Award success.  There is certainly some buzz surrounding the film’s release, and the theatre I screened it in was relatively packed (even at 6 in the evening the day after Thanksgiving).  The audience seemed pretty approving of the production by and large, though a group of three (out of 200 or so) did leave early on – never to return.

Don’t let the rather intangible concerns espoused above dissuade you if you’re looking forward to this one, as The Road is undeniably a good film and a fine alternative to the artless spectacles of destruction that typically populate the corners of the multiplex (sorry, no explosions here).  It just isn’t a great film, which I was perhaps unjustly expecting after the Coen brothers’ previous McCarthy adaptation.  The Road comes recommended, but keep those pesky expectations in check.