(USA, 2009, 119 minutes)
Written by: Joe Penhall
Directed by: John Hillcoat
Cast: Viggo Mortenson, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron, Garrett Dillahunt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Guy Pearce
This long-awaited adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel demanded a careful touch, given that without the author’s precise--and for some impenetrable--literary voice, this simply-plotted parable of “borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it” could’ve ended up as little more than an art house version of “The Road Warrior”.
It was unlikely that the Coen brothers would be available, or even willing, to take another swing so soon after their definitive screen translation of McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men”. Thankfully, the cinematically-robust material —which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and have its reclusive creator break his publicity silence via Oprah’s Book Club of all things--found its way to John Hillcoat, who gave us “The Proposition”. An Australian riff on “Heart Of Darkness”, its unflinching portrayal of betrayal and bloodshed, played out through ravaged faces and landscapes, bore an uncanny kinship to McCarthy’s anti-westerns “The Border Trilogy” and “Blood Meridian”, declaring the Hamilton, Ontario-born director a perfect fit.
Set a decade after an unnamed apocalypse has turned the world into a wasteland where the sky constantly rains ash (the obvious assumption is a nuclear catastrophe) and only insects and humans have survived, “The Road” refers literally and metaphorically to the perilous route The Man (Mortenson) and his son (Smit-McPhee) navigates to the coast, which the father believes to be a sanctuary. He is haunted by memories of his wife (Theron) who chose suicide over having to face, as McCarthy puts it, “the crushing black vacuum of the universe”. Her idealistic husband (a former doctor) fled their home to forge a more hopeful future. At night he reads to his son to instill a moral code, by teaches him survival skills so that he will “carry the fire”. Other than a cart of crude supplies, The Man’s only possession is a pistol containing two bullets, one for each of them, should they fall prey to the roaming mobs of interlopers who have succumbed to cannibalism as the last desperate act of survival.
While some moviegoers will be attracted by the obvious genre elements—bombed-out cities, some brief gunplay and chases, posses of flesh-eating, white trash goons—“The Road” is the farthest thing from an adventure film (although parts of it are thrilling) and much closer in sensibility and tone to Cornel Wilde’s “No Blade Of Grass” or the British television serial “The Survivors”. Playwright Joe Penhall’s screenplay expands the wife’s role in flashbacks and eliminates some of the novel’s more extreme imagery (esp. the grisly fate of a pregnant woman and her unborn child) but otherwise adheres to McCarthy’s prose beat for beat. Mortenson’s voice-overs are verbatim from the text, but wisely not overused.
Two pivotal set pieces from the book are memorably realized: the pair’s armrest-ripping escape from a house of all-too-human horrors, and a lyrical interlude in a fallout shelter, where the boy giddily enjoys the pleasures of a safe bed, canned fruit, and Coca-Cola.
A mangy, emaciated Mortenson is perfectly cast as The Man, haunted by ghosts and anticipating menace at every turn and yet who must maintain the illusion of “hope” his son needs to move on. Smit-McPhee is a bit older and better fed than the child in the novel, but brings a resemblance to Theron and the appropriate innocence to the role. Also worth noting are memorable cameos from a heartbreaking Robert Duvall, the ever-reliable Garrett Dillahunt (shaping up as this generation’s Bruce Dern), “The Wire”s Michael Kenneth Williams, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Guy Pearce (who starred in “The Proposition”)as fellow wanderers.
It’s appropriate that the film was shot on real American locations laid waste by disasters both natural and man-made. Production designer Chris Kennedy and DOP Javier Aguirresarobe masterfully paint a portrait of a dead world (“streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor” to intrude with another of my favorite passages) from the worst areas of Pittsburgh and the derelict Pennsylvania Turnpike, to post-Hurricane Katrina Louisiana, and the still-petrified Mount St. Helen’s in Washington. They’re complimented by a spare score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that might be a tad too winsome for such bleak dramatics, but is perhaps intended to be representative of the Man’s undaunted spirit. It all works, even though there’ll be many-a-moment where you’ll wish it didn’t…
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
Sunday, September 13, 2009