THE ROAD (John Hillcoat 2009)


Hollywood likes the world to end with a bang. In the Australian director John Hillcoat's The Road, adapted quite faithfully from Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel, it's ending with a whimper. This is an authentically post-apocalyptic situation, an Endgame worthy of Beckett, but tinged less with irony than with sadness and constant gnawing fear. Somewhere on the eastern seaboard, the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son, the Boy (Kodi Smith-McPhee), are struggling to make their way south to the sea, years after universal cataclysm has wiped the slate clean, killed every living plant. Everything is gray, covered with sludge. The trees stand black, shorn, and dead, and are starting to crumble and crash down, large and small. The Boy has never seen a bug, or drunk soda pop. On their journey these things happen, and are great novelties. What people there are remaining along the way must be deemed dangerous. Everyone is desperate and starving.

The Man has flashbacks to before, when he lived with a Woman (Charlize Theron). He sensed the disaster coming before she did. Apparently she had her baby after it happened, to her chagrin. Things were so hopeless she chose to wander off by herself. Some have committed suicide rather than starve to death or die at the hands of marauders. Cannibalism is being practiced by survivors. The Man promises the Boy they won't do that, that they're good guys and will always remain good guys, and carry the fire within them. (That promise is sorely tested.) Out there where the Man and the Boy are now, you have to assume anybody who turns up is a bad guy. And the problem is, the Man and the Boy have just one pistol with two remaining bullets, and they're meant for the two of them, in case.

Cormac McCarthy's books are sort of stylized, apocalyptic westerns a lot of the time, and this could be some austere Clint Eastwood invention with a sci-fi twist. Hillcoat's previous film The Proposition is an Aussie historical western about a desperate contract. The hard thing is to make The Road seem like nothing else, when post-apocalyptic imagery is so familiar to moviegoers. Hillcoat does a good job.

The Man's nostalgia for his past could be part of a Beckett play, but in a way this world is stripped even more bare than Beckett's, bare of discernible history or culture. It's never really clear why they're heading south, except that the Woman, when she was around, warned the Man he'd never survive another winter where they were.

The book's power comes from the way it takes you into this world of desperate day to day survival. The Man and his son come across an unspeakable horror in a southern mansion. When the discover an underground store of preserved food it's heaven for them, and they're also able to wash up and trim their hair. This is the interval of happiness. But it's unsafe to remain anywhere. The story and film give the boy and the adult equal importance. There's a moment of epiphany when the man says he is the one who has to worry about them, and the boy says no, he is. The man is the stronger and more experienced and tougher, but the boy is an angel. When they meet an old codger (Robert Duvall, superb) he says he thought the boy was really an angel. The boy speaks for kindness and love. He still has some hope. The man has lost it and is just soldiering on. His cough gets worse; he's not going to make it.

This is a book that's sufficiently powerful that what you want from a movie based on it is to bring it back to you, and Hillcoat does this. Mortensen and Smith-McPhee are wonderful, as is everyone, including Guy Pearce in a strong final cameo. The man and his son are all each other has, and the relationship is as heartrendingly pure. The difference is in the way the book, with its much greater number of words, speaks itself into your soul. However the movie can do that too if you give yourself to it; it's impossible to say what it feels like to see it without having read the book, if you have. Hillcoat gets the look of the world of The Road very well, though a distraction not experienced with the book is to be wondering sometimes where he found such a lot of wrecked, desolate houses, buildings, cars, roads, and trees, so much gray landscape and so much rain. Somehow all this was simulated on locations in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana. One objection is that sometimes there is a sepia tint to the scene that's too pretty; and sometimes there would have been flashes of light or color that the art directors did not allow. But this is a very worthy adaptation of a powerful book -- not McCarthy's greatest novel, but a more important and characteristic one for this very great contemporary American writer than his 2005 No Country for Old Men.

McCarthy's oeuvre is full of apocalyptic journeys. But none other is so stripped to the bone and so melancholy as this one. Yes, it ends with hope. But that's just to say it's open-ended. "Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved; do not presume, one of the thieves was damned." The Road is like that.

©Chris Knipp 2010