Ever since seeing the Coen Bros.’ film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, I’ve been dying to see his post-apocalyptic novel The Road receive the same treatment. Because what’s more silver screen than a film about the end of the world and the ensuing hunger, cold, and cannibals?
The Road follows McCarthy’s source material respectfully, detailing the quest of the man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son, the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), to reach warmer temperatures at the coast. Contrary to most apocalyptic scenarios, there are no Dawn of the Dead (1978) shopping sprees, no Zombieland hijinks. Food is scarce, traveling is treacherous due to cannibals, and a term lost on Americans since the Great Depression finally returns: desperation. When the world has decayed to the point that humans are the main diet, what does it mean to live?
This is the major theme for The Road and without such a top-notch cast, the world building would also come apart. Mortensen, as usual, does an amazing job fleshing out a father trying to teach his son morals in an amoral world, while doing anything it takes to ensure his son’s safety. The man is a good guy, but he’s no push over either. Robert Duvall makes a brief appearance as the “old man,” showing us not everyone is interested in human flesh and highlights the growing distance between the man and the boy: though the man and the boy are “carrying the fire” (if this sounds familiar, it’s because this phrase is used at the end of No Country for Old Men), the man’s desperate struggle to keep his son alive has begun to dampen his blaze. Suspicious and surly to newcomers, the man has allowed his love for the boy to turn him sour toward others. Where most children are sociopaths, the boy is the one who reminds him of compassion and forgiveness.
(POSSIBLE SPOILER, SKIP PARAGRAPHS)
The man has promised to do “whatever it takes” to keep the boy safe. Through flashbacks we see the pregnant woman (Charlize Theron) watching the man fill the bathtub full of water as something happens outside their home one evening (we never see it, but the man mentions a blinding light and concussions) . Gradually we see the woman is disinterested in raising a child in this new world, but the man tries to convince her to hope, to keep living. Despite his pleadings, the woman eventually decides “just surviving” isn’t enough and commits suicide, walking out in the night to die in the darkness.
Combined with the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, this is one of the most heartbreaking moments; as the man recalls this event, he disposes of the last souvenirs of his old life, tossing his wallet (containing a picture of his wife) into a valley and slowly pushing his wedding ring toward the edge and over into the same abyss.
(POSSIBLE SPOILER OVER)
Within these moments John Hillcoat’s adaptation achieves its finest moments, but it never quite reaches the same note as the novel. Most people will shoot me down for comparing the two, but here I think it’s a useful tool: you can see how one accomplished its task and ask why the other felt different. The book did an incredible job of conveying the monotonous exhaustion (mentally, spiritually, physically, mentally, anything -ally) that follows the constant search for food, shelter and avoiding the roving packs of cannibals.
I’ve theorized that it could stem from the ability of the book to always be in the man’s head, whereas film can only use heavy narration in certain cases without becoming redundant or lazy. The other theory could be a book’s length. You may spend 5-10 hours with the man and the boy in McCarthy’s novel. Every page allows this world to sink in deeper, until you want to start praying to whomever and thanking them for not having to live in such a bleak landscape.
So why the comparison? Because the whole point of the novel is to convey an underlying malaise tied to “just surviving” and yet still have characters who are willing to “carry the fire,” who don’t let themselves sink into an amoral mess because the environment has changed. Hillcoat does everything he can to convey this same desperation, but there’s something – just – not – there.
This is very hard for me to say: the music is spot on; the costumes and makeup let you know that this apocalypse isn’t clean or pretty; the set design is bleak and otherworldly, and the characters are believable. There is nothing about the film that throws it off course (in a major way; the ending is a little different from the book and breaks slightly from the bleakness we’ve endured), but for some reason, the film falls just short of being able to deliver in the same way as the novel.
In the end, I would definitely recommend seeing The Road. Even if you stripped it down into individual parts, you should see it for Viggo Mortensen, or the set design, or the story, or the underlying theme. The fact that this film isn’t “apocalypse-light” is worthy enough for your dollars (seeing this on the big screen is a must). The Road is heartbreaking and amazing–you may not feel the same as you did with the novel. But it will be enough.
4 1/2 out of 5