Reviewed by T. S. Miller
11 December 2009
To any devotees of the 2006 Cormac McCarthy novel who were scared off by the orgy of natural disasters and assorted explosions in that first "action-packed" trailer, I report that there is no need to fear: in this hyper-faithful adaptation, director John Hillcoat has hardly modified the essential atmosphere of the book beyond shuffling around some scenes to frontload more of the action. In fact, the fidelity of The Road to the novel on which it is based remains so pronounced throughout that one wonders if it may have made a somewhat more compelling film—or at least one with a broader appeal—had those involved not loved every word of the original quite so much. But Hillcoat, working from Joe Penhall's screenplay, has clearly balanced his desire for fidelity with a number of strategies for curbing the monotony that would have plagued a completely faithful presentation of the events in the book.
Because, as far as plot goes, there's really not much to summarize here; like the novel, The Road is the story of a nameless man (Viggo Mortensen) and his nameless son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) on their interminable cross-country journey across a dead and depopulated post-apocalyptic landscape. The Man's first and only priority is his son's survival, and, while the pair encounters a few horrifically hostile groups out on the road, in this barren world the greater antagonist is more often the specter of starvation. The film version has wisely and mercifully reduced the number of times that McCarthy's two travelers find themselves miraculously saved from the brink of death by a windfall of desiccated apples, etc., but, since most of the narrative action in the book does revolve around locating the next meal in a pile of rubble, the adaptation must find some way to make the narrative engaging without all of the weighty introspection, reflection, and meditation that a film simple cannot reproduce. Accordingly, the overall restructuring of the plot—always based on McCarthy's own episodes but often with them arranged in a different order—results in a more viewable narrative, so to speak, not kowtowing to convention so much as recognizing that the narrative arc must become less elliptical and repetitive without McCarthy's unparalleled prose to carry it. That said, the screenplay does import a considerable amount of dialogue from the novel, and, although there were perhaps a few too many voiceovers, several of them seem necessary for this kind of deferential adaptation. Especially with less conventional narrative thrust, it can also be difficult to pull off a film with only two central characters—and two fairly stolid, taciturn McCarthy males at that—but the expansion of Charlize Theron's role as the Man's wife in a series of long flashbacks compensates for this issue fairly well, without displacing the central relationship between father and son. As another plus, Robert Duvall makes a brief but noteworthy appearance as the old man Ely, if you can recognize him under the grimy makeup.
Of course, it's Mortensen and Smit-McPhee who really shine here. (I was pleased to learn that the latter will be playing the human lead in the upcoming remake of Let the Right One In [Låt den rätte komma in], easily the finest Swedish teen vampire flick I've ever seen.) Both actors, one a seasoned Hollywood veteran and the other less so, do a spectacular job of portraying characters clinging to their humanity in two very different ways, all against a background colored with a palette of grays and greys, and perhaps a few touches of brown. The one major advantage the adaptation has over the novel is the simple effect of being able to show the often moving interactions of the two characters and the harshness of their world all at once. Although the novel works better for me in many ways, and the film seems less likely to leave a lasting impression, I cannot imagine a better dramatization of the words and the world of McCarthy's pages.
Following an enormously successful adaptation of another McCarthy work, No Country for Old Men, The Road has been a high-profile project from the beginning. Not only did the original novel go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and attract the attention of Oprah—along with her market share—it can even be seen as part of a current boom in post-apocalyptic narratives. Yet the very scope of these large built-in audiences may have become a liability for the filmmakers and its marketers. For example, the initial trailer, which begins by intercutting stock disaster footage with a ridiculously inappropriate teaser—"10 YEARS FROM NOW. . . ONE EVENT. . . WILL CHANGE THE FACE OF THE PLANET"—promises an audience something much closer to the big-budget mayhem of 2012. Needless to say, this is a promise that a film at all faithful to McCarthy's novel could never keep: The Road is about anything but the actual disaster that creates the landscape in which the Man finds himself.
And so the question of the film's intended audience brings us back to the not yet cooled debates about the novel's relationship to science fiction. While the prolonged media attention associated with the adaptation has squeezed another interview out of the notoriously reclusive McCarthy, he has yet to address the relationship between The Road and the genre(s) as he perceives it. Hillcoat, on the other hand, has taken care to distance his film from the old genre stigma: "Also, unlike most post-apocalyptic stories, this is not science fiction. It's more about America today, our own fears." I agree that The Road is not best viewed as a science fiction film, but not, of course, because of this lamentable belief that the genre has nothing to do with the present or even the fears and concerns of the present. The Road is simply not extrapolative; it is not really interested in answering, say, the question of what would happen to ecosystems and human societies in the wake of nuclear war. Instead, the apocalypse in both novel and film is not only unexplained but arbitrary and artificial, maybe even impossible, because what calamity, natural or man-made, would destroy all life on the planet but spare a few fragile humans and the occasional dog? In all likelihood, the scope of the devastation in The Road exceeds even the most severe nuclear/volcanic/impact winter, and, in consequence, the only apocalypse with a similar premise would seem to be the essentially supernatural 1985 film The Quiet Earth, in which a fanciful physics experiment gone awry erases most humans and other animals from reality.
Yet I would not describe The Road as some kind of fantasy, nor can the film really be understood—as Michael Chabon argued of the novel—as a combination of "adventure and Gothic horror." While a few moments in the film do play up the horror element—for example, the scene in which the Man discovers half-eaten humans kept in a dark cellar—The Road does not offer the thrills and chills one would expect of a typical slasher, or even of a zombie movie or ghost story. In the end, I'm going to have to set myself in the camp that maintains that it's easier to read the The Road allegorically, metaphorically, symbolically—choose your figurative term. The one that perhaps comes up the most frequently in discussions of the novel is in fact Chabon's rejected designation of "parable," in part due to the narrative's spiritual overtones, which the film carries yet farther, adding an important scene in a ruined church. For two excellent discussions of how the parable form operates alongside the standard post-apocalyptic narrative, see the reviews of the novel in this magazine by Victoria Hoyle and Paul Kincaid. Kincaid concludes, for instance, that "the book has to be read as a religious parable rather than as rationalist science fiction." To be sure, "rationalist" the film is not, and entering the theater with the expectation that The Road should extrapolate rigorously on possible societal breakdowns and/or environmental catastrophes will probably result in a disappointing experience.
This is not to say that the problems that the film has always return to a question of improper audience expectations: presenting a literary parable on the screen is a much more fraught enterprise than writing one. What the camera shows us we are generally more inclined to understand as mimetic, inherently representative of a "real" narrated event. In other words, I can see a certain kind of post-apocalyptic enthusiast—perhaps one who has not read the novel—scratching his head over the idea that, wait, you're telling me Viggo is just a metaphor? But I personally find much that is new and gripping in the deliberately "unrealistic" post-apocalyptic mode that the film version preserves. We see trudging across the screen pitiable human creatures who find themselves forced to prey on the remains of their civilization—and that can mean the products of the old industry like canned food, or it can mean each other. In this allegorical landscape, there can be no "cozy-catastrophe" regrouping and rebuilding: why then should we care about the Man's plight in this impossible world? Well, we shouldn't, as such, but The Road nevertheless provides a stark backdrop for the drama between father and son, the divide between forlorn wanderer and absent deity, the conflict between husband and wife, and the irreconcilable divide between misguided survivor and misguided surrenderer.
I should note that the film version does make one seemingly minor change with major implications for these issues: towards the end of the film, the Boy discovers a single living thing, a beautiful beetle that ascends heavenward on iridescent wings—a far more inspiring sight than the scurrying cockroaches we're taught will survive any nuclear holocaust. I understand this detail as an abortive attempt to recuperate the literal narrative from the realm of the purely allegorical, a glimmer of hope intended to banish that niggling question a reader may ask of the novel, i.e., why carry the fire if there is absolutely no hope for mankind because the earth will never again support life? Why rejoice at the "happy ending" when the human race has no chance to survive any longer than the canned food holds out? The little bug seems easy enough to ignore if it damages one's desired interpretation of the Man's persistence in a world without any hope at all, and probably represents a positive change if it can quiet some of the practical objections to the narrative. More importantly, even if The Road at times seems unsure of what kind of film it wants to be or how wide an audience it should reach, it remains a valuable piece of filmmaking as a near-literal translation of McCarthy to the screen, admittedly deriving the better part of its power and significance from a significant and undeniably powerful book.