And in the End…
by Jeff Reichert
Dir. John Hillcoat, U.S., The Weinstein Company
Fans of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—and it’s surprising there are many, considering it’s such a sparse, bleakly unsettling work—will surely find much to like in John Hillcoat’s screen version. As far as adaptations are concerned, Hillcoat and his team had an easier path than some. Often the problems of translation resolve around calculated excisions: what materials from the source text get dumped, shortened, or combined to produce a film of reasonable length. Complaints revolve around missing characters or cherished scenes left unshot or tabled for DVD extras. McCarthy’s The Road, in which black type swims in seas of white over a very short novel’s worth of pages, is a screenwriter’s heaven. The novelist’s emphasis on terse dialogue-driven sequences and even terser descriptions of scenery feel screenplay-ready; its overall brevity meant that little need be jettisoned in the transition.
Hillcoat’s The Road proceeds in the same bluntly episodic fashion as the book. The unnamed characters, a father (Viggo Mortensen) and a son (Kodi Smith-McPhee), living in the wake of an undiscussed cataclysm that’s left the world a frozen husk, walk, hide, search for food, and huddle for warmth. The Road isn’t a narrative of growth or actualization—with humanity reduced to the near animalistic, there’s little time for anything but survival. Appropriately, scenes are self-contained, disconnected, save the trudge through vast desolate wilderness that unites them. This kind of disjunctive storytelling feels odd in a movie that reeks of prestige. By hewing to the book, Hillcoat is able to wed his outré sensibilities (as evinced in his bloodthirsty Western The Proposition) to a year-end awards contender, which pushes the film into discomfiting places. Even as Mortensen’s straightforwardly rigorous and harrowed performance continues building the case for him as one of the most versatile and committed actors of his generation, the movie keeps us at arm’s length from him, layering on discomfort and progressing in fits and starts through and towards extreme bleakness.
The father-son duo’s destination is alternately “South” or “to the coast,” a mythic locale portending scant salvation. They meet few people along the way, most of them played by famous actors—the celebrity cameos of the afterlife. (Put a circular organ score under it and you’ve almost got Béla Tarr.) Hillcoat deals somewhat less well with the drift here than in The Proposition (rumors of studio interference and re-tooling abound; productive aimlessness may have been a casualty), finding his greatest success in his handling of McCarthy’s most, thrilling gruesome scene—about a dungeon basement filled with human chattel kept alive to feed a violent gang, in which father and son nearly become trapped as the group returns to the house above. Cannibalism is the main fear of this new world order, and has in fact been a staple of many postapocalyptic fictions, but you might have to dig as far back as Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain to find a film so repulsed by the idea of humans eating other humans. In The Road, it’s nearly the only dividing line between order and chaos. Their escape from the dungeon is nerve-wracking: Hillcoat pulls no punches, and, like last summer’s Orphan, he includes some near scandalous images of children endangered by small firearms at close range. It's some of the most perfectly tense filmmaking of the year.
Robert Duvall shows up late in the film as another drifter, who, over a fireside dinner begins to tease out one of the book’s finer ambiguities, namely: Is the child really the son of this particular father? Unfortunately, Hillcoat doesn’t quite push this question as far as the book does; if you’ve never read the book, it might not even occur to you at all. This lessens somewhat McCarthy’s mystical investment in the moral imperative around protection of the weak. The imbuing of the real with touches of the ineffable is McCarthy’s forte, and works like Outer Dark and Suttree, though set in 20th-century Appalachia, could just as easily take place in some alternative universe where time’s stood still, perhaps never even started moving. What’s striking about McCarthy’s The Road is just how similarly its depopulated world, so fraught with danger, is to his pre-apocalyptic novels. Hillcoat hints in the direction of the author’s mythology, when he watches the pair awake to morning light streaming through the windows of a church, or in a scene in which father and son converse about ideas of good and evil, but The Road never quite attains the level of timeless legend.
Even if I wanted it to linger somewhat longer in the mind, Hillcoat’s film does manage to approximate the book’s visceral, despairing punch in the gut. I walked out of The Road to find that the functioning, modern spaces we inhabit looked strange; so consistent is Hillcoat’s lonely monochromatic vision (CG-enhanced, certainly) that it retrains your eye, teaches it to more fully distinguish shades of gray and brown, pick out motion from a sea of stillness and decay. A world alive with color after two hours in the apocalypse felt odd, unreal. As I turned down the street following my viewing, the neon red and green glow of streetlights proved newly entrancing, the mere fact of passersby was a revelation. Movies are supposed to tweak our senses, screw up our familiarity with the world, so this makes The Road valuable as a piece of cinema.
If Hillcoat does so much right (as does his screenwriter Joe Penhall), and hits nearly all of the book’s crucial beats, then why does watching The Road feel so different on screen? Some of this frisson has to do with the restructuring of McCarthy’s flashbacks. In the novel, they’re parceled out more teasingly; in the film, the crucial episode (the night the world went awry) is placed at the film’s open. It’s not an incorrect choice, but it alters our perceptions; McCarthy chose to leave us guessing longer, more adrift, where Hillcoat invites us in quickly. Another major difference is the soundtrack, featuring Nick Cave’s often cloying and distracting score, which blunts incidents where silence would have sufficed. But the biggest difference, and perhaps the subtlest and easiest to overlook in the translation process, stems from the practice of reading itself. Both book and movie are relentless, no question, but McCarthy has an advantage: the turn of the page and the chapter break offer regular respite for his readers. We can’t put down a movie or adequately look away; filmmakers need to do this for us. Hillcoat might have thought more about padding strategies, ways to make us really feel the lonely spaces. His film is ruthless, shaking, where it might have been a notch more insidious and creeping. After all the brutal grimness, Hillcoat achieves his most resonant effect via subtlety: a choice bit of sound design under the end credits—the sound of sprinklers and screen doors, clearly signaling suburbia, normalcy, life before The Road. It’s not a case of too little too late, but it certainly signals roads not taken.