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The Road

Eric Stottlemyer

Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Dimension Films
U.S. Release: 25 November 2009
In The Road, an unidentified apocalypse—possibly nuclear, possibly environmental, possibly both—has reduced all life on Earth to a few thousand survivors who must compete with each other for sustenance. Cormac McCarthy’s novel follows two survivors, a boy and his fiercely devoted father, as they embark on a dangerous journey eastward toward the Atlantic coast, where they hope to find salvation. Along the way, they encounter the unrelenting and savage horrors that ensue once civilization collapses.

When I heard that Dimension Films had decided to make McCarthy’s beloved, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a movie, I vacillated between elation and dismay. On the one hand, a full-length cinematic feature would expose audiences to McCarthy’s near-masterpiece. On the other hand, fans of the novel (and I am one of them) almost universally agree that McCarthy’s dark vision is unfilmable.

How could a two-hour movie convincingly capture the emotional, moral, and physical challenges faced by a father and son as they limp, half-starved, across an obliterated American landscape while battling flesh-hungry cannibals? At a critical moment in the novel, the boy asks his father, “What are our long-term goals?” With understated emotion, the father replies, “I don’t know.” And herein lies the challenge of filming this tale of love, frailty, and abject violence. Even for the gamey survivors, death is the only meaningful goal. There is no comfort, no respite, no meditative, end-of-day reflection on the meaning of life, and there never will be. The only meaning that exists for the story’s doomed heroes is that which they find within each other—a meaning that must succumb to inevitability, to the dusty, lifeless, cauterized husk formerly known as the Earth.

Under these circumstances, it is easy to understand why John Hillcoat’s adaptation languished in post-production for over a year. Two opposing realities—one a post-apocalyptic nightmare, the other a marketer’s—nearly destroyed the film before it made it out of the editor’s suite. Originally set for a November 2008 release, dates for the premiere were pushed back, and then pushed back again. Trailers for the film—ludicrously off-center—focused on the insuperable bond between a father and his young son. In one, a maudlin flourish of symphonic strings desperately tried to set an upbeat tone.

In its final version, however, the film is raw and uncompromising. The heroes, expertly played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, slog through an ashen landscape littered with corpses and punctuated by cataclysmic fires. They stumble upon panoramic horrors, macroscopic destruction, and the absolute moral decay of humanity. They find entombed prisoners, naked and terrified—some half-eaten—whose futures lie in a cannibal’s fire. With rare exceptions, their isolation is broken only by violence. Against these horrors, the actors work hard to make their bond convincing and to build that bond subtly and steadily as an oppositional force of hope—the only hope the movie offers to its (admittedly limited) audience.

Working from playwright Joe Penhall’s faithful adaptation, Hillcoat ably captures some of the moral dilemmas engendered by the horrors of an apocalypse. Under what circumstances should food be shared, for example, if supplies are dwindling globally to a point of absolute zero? How can a child acquire a set of meaningful values if surviving relegates ethics to the weak and the dying? Like McCarthy’s novel, the film provides limited answers to these questions, allowing audiences to absorb the human drama that unfolds around them: in one scene, the father abandons a thief on the road with no clothes, no shoes, and no food. It is a death sentence for the thief (played by Michael K. Williams), and the scene, shot from the thief’s point of view, is arguably one of the most poignant in cinema.

However, the film cannot capture the true, almost plumb-less emotional bond between the father and son—a bond made strongest by the father’s desire to preserve within his son some vestige of what once was good. To compromise, Hillcoat settles on the book’s most sentimental moments. McCarthy’s novel, however, grapples inexhaustibly with goodness as a relative concept, and he uses the bond between his two main characters to explore the deterioration of goodness over time. Hillcoat does not have this luxury, and for all its strengths, the movie rapidly deteriorates into a survival-at-all-costs treatise on the end of the world as we know it. Fans of the novel will find at least some redeeming qualities in Hillcoat’s cinematic portrayal: his loyalty to McCarthy’s apocalyptic vision is admirable, as is his portrayal of the boy’s mother and her demise. All of them, however, will question Penhall’s ending, which carelessly disregards several of the novel’s revelatory concluding passages, and relies instead on a promising rescue scene by a family of “good guys.”

Eric Stottlemyer, Nonfiction Editor

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