Unimpressive Adaptation

'The Road' can't overcome its source material's lack of a plot

I could sum up my reaction to John Hillcoat's adaptation of The Road with the word "unimpressed," but that's a little harsh; there are some truly inventive and spectacular visual effects. So I guess "unimpressed except by the visual effects" would be the kinder review.

Not that it's a terrible movie. Hillcoat had the problem of adapting Cormac McCarthy's compelling but probably unfilmable book. The Road is a plotless, episodic story about a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wandering across post-apocalyptic America. So it's sort of a Christmas fable, except instead of Santa Claus not being able to deliver presents because of a dense fog, we get cannibals eating the last remaining humans in ash-strewn wastelands.

McCarthy's prose may be the best thing about the book. It's dense and weird and idiosyncratic, in keeping with the sort of language experimentation he pioneered in Outer Dark and Blood Meridian. But the movie can't really take advantage of that, except in scattered voiceover. Instead, it's stuck with the plot, and as great as the book is, it doesn't really have a plot.

Instead, it has vignettes that illustrate both what humans will descend to when removed from the strictures of law and society, and what people will strive for in the face of desperation. Hillcoat does his best to jam all of the episodes into the film, though he warps a few of them to ease digestion. Like, the scene in which a newborn baby is roasted and eaten is mercifully left out, and a sequence of people shackled and stored for future cooking is done about as tastefully as it could be.

In terms of faithfulness to the spirit of the text, I guess he does OK. His only deep betrayal is in the ending, where he takes an incredibly ambiguous scene and waters it down for consumption by mainstream audiences. It's too bad, because ambiguity is underutilized in American cinema; while most movies are clear-cut in every dimension, the films that come along late in the fall and beg for Oscars often indulge in moral ambiguity.

But moral ambiguity doesn't ask nearly as much from an audience as narrative ambiguity, and Hillcoat removes the latter (though he keeps the former) so as to come up with an ending that could have come from a Pixar movie, were it not for the fact that the preceding 100 minutes had featured smoking human ribcages and Viggo Mortensen's skinny, naked ass. On the other hand, the ending is so out of place that I wondered if it were perhaps meant to be a dream or fantasy sequence, in which case it's incredibly chilling, and my hat is off to Hillcoat for thinking of it.

My other big complaint with the film is the music, which is ceaseless, manipulative and boringly derivative. It's by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and I've never been a fan of the former, so your mileage may vary, but even by Nick Cave standards, this an intrusive and pointless soundtrack. Like most people, I already understand that hanging out with your 10-year-old son as you die in a world without hope is sad; I don't need a mournful dirge to remind me. And I totally get that being chased by ax-wielding cannibals is scary; there's no need to turn up the volume on some 1980s horror-movie music.

Having said all that, I enjoyed parts of the film. It doesn't live up to the book, and it doesn't live up to the hype that surrounded it, but the visuals are arresting. Hillcoat, cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, art director Gershon Ginsburg and a legion of CGI experts have created the most convincing post-cataclysm world I've ever seen on film. Although the cause of the destruction is never stated, it's apparently either a meteor strike or a nuclear war, as the skies are continually dark; the ground is covered in ash; all the trees are dead; the animals are gone; and it's perpetually winter.

To get this effect, the filmmakers have the man and the boy pass through forests of tall, nearly branchless tree trunks, and across towns that are painted gray by the ashy air. It's the consistency of the effect, though, that really sells it. Shots from ruined highways show the trunk forests receding to the horizon, and the sky is always lit with a sickly glow, like a dying candle seen through a dirty window.

The acting is mostly decent. Viggo Mortensen does his standard Viggo Mortensen act, which, judged solely on naturalism, is more than adequate. There's an excellent cameo by Guy Pearce, and another by Garret Dillahunt, that are both rich with suggestion.

In spite of that, this page-turning book has made for a mildly dull film. The book can take advantage of McCarthy's linguistic acrobatics and a deeply internal sense of emotion, whereas a movie can't bring us so fully inside the characters, and can't spirit the audience along on narrative prose. Again, it's not an awful film, or even a bad one (with the exception of the musical choices, which are pretty lame), but it just never sets its hook.


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