John Hillcoat has taken the decade’s most celebrated book and transformed it into a cinematic spectacle in its own right.
In 2006, Cormac McCarthy scratched at the skin of civilisation and found it easily broken. Written in the spare tones of secular prophecy, 'The Road' bore witness to the wracked gasp of human extinction. But within this lucid and lyrical epic of horror was a consecration of hope. If 'The Road' was our funeral lament, it was also a testament to the embers of humanity that survived the end of everything.
An unnamed catastrophe has devastated the planet. The collapse of the ecosystem has left a world bleached of life and colour. A few remain, reduced. Surviving by any means necessary they have shrugged off the layers of their humanity by increments; or else they have succumbed to fear, exhaustion and despair. Cannibalism is the great fear and the greater temptation.
It’s against this backdrop that a Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his Wife (Charlize Theron) give birth to a Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and raise him, reluctantly, in a world stripped of every certainty except death. "Sooner or later they will catch up with us and they will kill us," promises the Wife. "They will rape us and kill us and eat us, and you won’t face it." There are no fresh beginnings in this new world – though the Boy remembers nothing of Before, his innocence is a tragedy, another reminder that even though so much has already been lost, there is still more to be taken away.
Ten years after the apocalypse, the Man and Boy are on the road – the sprawling network of cracked concrete highways that leads inexorably south and west. Through a landscape peppered with ash and snow, thunderous with decay and destruction, they are heading to the coast and the unkept promise of survival.
Nobody ever said that McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winner was unfilmable, but its adaptation poses risks. With its blood cults, cannibal gangs and benighted landscapes, The Road flirts with familiar imagery. From The Road Warrior to The Postman, from Twelve Monkeys to I Am Legend, cinema has made a playground of the apocalypse. The formula established in these films is to approach our destruction with a sense of possibility rather than finality – to treat the end of the earth as a blank canvas from which we’ll improbably begin again.
But The Road is different. McCarthy is too ruthless to allow us the luxury of false hope. If civilisation is to survive it will be as an idea carried in the hearts of the ‘good guys’, not in the rebuilding of governments or religions. The issue at hand for director John Hillcoat is to match that honesty; to explore the emotional as well as the physical devastation of humanity.
In The Road, the familiar exterior elements – the muted photography, the abandoned cars, the broken bridges – must themselves be a route through to the film’s interior, into the heart and soul of its characters. Beyond the CG stardust, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Even more problematic is the task of responding to the book’s tone. What makes the novel unique isn’t just the visceral power of McCarthy’s honesty, but the sepulchral poetry with which he expresses himself. The challenge is to match that, somehow, in the very different language of cinema without resorting to clichés.
Have Hillcoat and writer Joe Penhall managed it? To a degree, yes, they have. The Road isn’t flawless, it isn’t quite the emotional masterpiece you want it to be, but it is both a worthy companion piece to the source material and, moreover, a dramatic slice of cinematic story telling in its own right.
Where the film struggles is in its visual literalism. Cinema is a descriptive medium: it doesn’t tell; it shows. And in this respect it simply can’t compete with the evocative power of McCarthy’s prose. Although Hillcoat has made the right creative choices – forsaking comfort for authenticity by shooting in the ruined mining towns of northeast America, augmented by a sparing and effective use of CGI – he has no great innovation to match the novel’s haunting lyricism. The best he can do is direct quotation, and although he uses it judiciously, every moment of voiceover is a reminder that the book casts a shadow over the film.
What he does have is Spanish DP Javier Aguirresarobe, who paints the film in winter shades of pale grey, as if putting his lips to the celluloid and sucking out the life. By contrast, the Man’s dreams of happier days are lit with the rich warmth of copper light, a light that is lost to the black shadows of his waking life.
Hillcoat and Aguirresarobe construct some beautiful scenes in the thin sunlight that pokes through the ashen haze. By the banks of a stream the Man washes blood out of the Boy’s hair in silent close-up. The Boy drinks a dust-coated can of Coke in extravagant wonder. A house bleeds with decay. Waterfalls presage a world bursting at the seams, clamouring with the celebratory violence of reclamation. Beauty invested with horror.
Even the camera is pinched at the edges, the image growing indistinct in the corners of the frame as if gradually collapsing in on itself, recoiling from this insensate destruction. It gives the film the air of a fading memory – the last evidence of our passing on the brink of being extinguished.
Other choices work less well. Perhaps they thought that this particular road lacked sufficient signposting, but Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score is far too present. It dominates the quieter scenes with a series of insipid emotional cues that come close to ruining the film’s ascetic atmosphere.
Elsewhere, however, that atmosphere is sustained by ambient creaks and groans. In the cannibal house, the film takes on the character of a horror movie, stoked by a soundtrack of inhuman screams. It’s in scenes such as this that Hillcoat proves he isn’t constrained by the book, converting it into something more claustrophobic and cinematic than McCarthy had in mind.
Though the movie is, in the main, a series of vignettes, it is expertly paced with a number of dramatic crescendos. And for all that it may lack the book’s evocative power, in the cannibal house the film comes into its own: looking into the eyes of a father holding a gun against the head of his son.
That, of course, is the heart of The Road: the emotional connection between the Man and the Boy as they confront the spectres of fear, loss and loneliness. The film stands or falls on the strengths of its performances, and in this respect it is a success.
Viggo Mortensen attacks the role of the Man with trademark intensity. He’s an extension of the landscape, crusted with dirt, sunken and skinny, hollowed out as if horror has taken a physical piece of him. He inhabits the role with a quiet completeness that nevertheless offers glimpses of a taught inner tension and steel-eyed instinct for survival.
As the Boy, newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee has the more emotionally volatile role. The bond between the two actors is palpable, and several of their scenes were semi-improvised – a remarkable achievement for a young actor. McPhee convinces, oscillating between angry energy and withered fear, but his performance doesn’t have the knowing self-possession of somebody like Max Records in Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are. Viggo, too, seems more alert when sharing a campfire with Robert Duvall’s Old Man, an electrifying scene that offers one of the film’s highlights.
Stooped beneath a burden of profound sadness, The Road is a tragic requiem for the death of civilisation. It is a post-apocalyptic road trip through a world of taunting memories. It demands that we face the question of what we would do if it was us, and answer it with brutal honesty.
But this is not a film of moral dilemmas – morality is a luxury in this landscape that has been purified by catastrophe. It is about how we shaped the world, and how we were reshaped in turn by the utter certainty of damnation. And if it falls slightly short of the genius that inspired it, then it is still reaching vertiginous heights indeed.
One of the most profound, moving and lyrical books of the decade adapted by a gifted director and star.
Enthralling and engrossing, if not without the occasional misstep in conception and execution.
See it twice. The first will remind you of the genius of the book. The second will remind you of the achievements of the film.