Review: The Road

The Road

The challenges awaiting Joe Penhall and John Hillcoat in adapting and directing (respectively) Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” had to be numerous. This post-apocalyptic father-and-son story about whether struggling to survive as long as possible is worth the pain is a bleak tale and one that grinds along much of the time. It doesn’t have more than a handful of eventful or visually stimulating scenes. They manage, however, to not only be faithful to McCarthy’s elegy, but also add great details to make it into a solid film.

For starters, Penhall gives us more context than the novel provides in terms of what’s happened to turn the world into a barren place. Fires, earthquakes and other natural disasters have devastated the landscape and although we don’t experience what it was exactly that was horrible enough to drive people to kill themselves instead of endure it and drove many to looting and cannibalism, we still understand the gravity of the situation. In this way, “The Road” is more inviting to those who’ve never read the book and need help suspending disbelief.

The script also stays true to the book’s structure. The book is a series of brief paintings with candid dialogue between father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they try to survive and reach the southern coast where they won’t have to try and last through another brutal winter. The scenes are strung together without any traditional “acts” dividing up the story. The film delivers in this way, but it expands and breaks up this grinding structure with flashbacks/dreams which is helpful for the lesser attention spans of movie watchers.

Most additions to the original story are to clarify context and also add emotional impact. The mother (Charlize Theron) is not part of the main story, but she’s woven in through dreams and flashbacks. We see her give birth to the son in the midst of this apocalypse and how her regret bringing him into the world clashes with the father’s steadfast belief in survival at all costs. We see brief moments of her and the father in love, too, and his character becomes much more emotionally complex. Instead of being just the brave, cunning hero, Mortensen also plays the widower and the emotional mentor to his son. He works all these facets to his character into a truly excellent performance that’s believable in every way.

Hillcoat tries to add where he can as well, focusing a lot on hands and finding really touching or moving shots that effectively echo McCarthy’s narrative snapshots in the book. He also spares no detail. Great credit to the thorough realism in the make-up, props and costumes department; images of dirt caked in all the characters’ fingernails linger as does the greasiness of their hair and beards and the dirt on their faces. When father and son find an empty home where they can shower, watching the dirt come off them has far more of an impact than it does in any other film. Wounds are also focused on for shock value — there’s a concerted effort to shake any viewer that might be too complacent and not realize the gravity of the characters’ situation.

Much of what made McCarthy’s story award-winning is captured by this film. There isn’t much of an effort to go beyond some of those basic concepts or really hammer them in deep, but on the flip-side it aims for emotional impact, something far more universally appreciated at the movie theater than a deep meditation on human nature or how much it’s worth fighting to stay alive with grim chances of dying anything but a painful or reluctant death. Instead of leaving the film with deeper philosophical/ethical questions, we get a touching story of father and son doing anything to stay with each other as long as they can, which is a fair trade off. Ideally we get both, but a job well done considering the challenging nature of the source material.

4/5 Stars

“The Road”
Directed by: John Hillcoat
Written by: Joe Pendhall, Cormac McCarthy (novel)
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee

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