The Road Review
The challenges awaiting Joe Penhall and John Hillcoat in adapting and directing (respectively) Cormac McCarthy’s The Road were numerous. This post-apocalyptic father-and-son story about whether struggling to survive as long as possible is worth the pain is a bleak tale and one that grinds along much of the time. It doesn’t have more than a handful of eventful or visually stimulating scenes. They manage, however, to not only be faithful to McCarthy’s elegy, but also add great details to make The Road, now on DVD and Blu-ray, into a solid film.
For starters, Penhall gives us more context than the novel provides in terms of what’s happened to turn the world into a barren place. Fires, earthquakes and other natural disasters have devastated the landscape and although we don’t experience what it was exactly that was horrible enough to drive people to kill themselves instead of endure it and drove many to looting and cannibalism, we still understand the gravity of the situation. In this way, The Road is more inviting to those who have never read the book and need help suspending disbelief.
The script also stays true to the book’s structure. The book is a series of brief paintings with candid dialogue between father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they try to survive and reach the southern coast where they won’t have to try and last through another brutal winter. The scenes are strung together without any traditional “acts” dividing up the story. The film delivers in this way, but it expands and breaks up this grinding structure with flashbacks/dreams which is helpful for the lesser attention spans of movie watchers.
Most additions to the original story are to clarify context and also add emotional impact. The mother (Charlize Theron) is not part of the main story, but she’s woven in through dreams and flashbacks. We see her give birth to the son in the midst of this apocalypse and how her regret bringing him into the world clashes with the father’s steadfast belief in survival at all costs. We see brief moments of her and the father in love, too, and his character becomes much more emotionally complex. Instead of being just the brave, cunning hero, Mortensen also plays the widower and the emotional mentor to his son. He works all these facets to his character into a truly excellent performance that’s believable in every way.
Hillcoat tries to add where he can as well, focusing a lot on hands and finding really touching or moving shots that effectively echo McCarthy’s narrative snapshots in the book. He also spares no detail. Great credit to the thorough realism in the make-up, props and costumes department; images of dirt caked in all the characters’ fingernails linger as does the greasiness of their hair and beards and the dirt on their faces. When father and son find an empty home where they can shower, watching the dirt come off them has far more of an impact than clean-up takes in other films. Wounds are also focused on for shock value — there’s a concerted effort to shake any viewer that might be too complacent and not realize the gravity of the characters’ situation.
Much of what made McCarthy’s story award-winning is captured by this film. There isn’t much of an effort to go beyond some of those basic concepts or really hammer them in deep, but on the flip-side it aims for emotional impact, something far more universally appreciated at the movie theater than a deep meditation on human nature or how much it’s worth fighting to stay alive with grim chances of dying anything but a painful or reluctant death. Instead of leaving the film with deeper philosophical/ethical questions, we get a touching story of father and son doing anything to stay with each other as long as they can, which is a fair trade off. Ideally we get both, but a job well done considering the challenging nature of the source material.
Directed by John Hillcoat
Written by Joe Penhall, Cormac McCarthy (novel)
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron
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Simon thought: "I have advocated before that there is a great divide between a film that is tragic and one that is depressing. John Hillcoat’s adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel unfortunately falls squarely in the latter. When a film presents a tragic series of events, such as in films like Before the Devil Knows Your Dead or Requiem for a Dream, you are able to identify with the characters involved, empathize with their circumstances and leave the viewing touched and pensive. An inherently depressing film leaves the viewer exhausted and all the elements at play blur together and become a single emotional void. The Road is so grim at every turn the characters fade into the atmosphere, the setting and the grizzly conflicts that arise. What this film accomplished without doubt is creating a post-apocalyptic land unlike any before it and for someone who is a fan of this sub-genre (most specifically zombie or epidemic films) drained any back-handed desire I had to experience such an event. Little fault can be found in the superb central performances of Viggo Mortensen as The Father and Kodi Smit-McPhee as The Son who wander the dying world and their unwavering love for one another is what saves The Road from ultimate disaster." Rating: 6/10
Kieran thought: "The Road is about a father and son relationship during the worst event imaginable, the end of world. With an excellent screenplay, the fantastic direction from John Hillcoat shows how this relationship would work in a world where all plant and animal life has died and humanity has resorted to cannibalism, theft and suicide. Hillcoat captures the tone perfectly with a bleak outlook on how people would try and keep morals in an amoral world and how the father (Viggo Mortenson) disintegrates physical and character-wise to protect his son. Hillcoat and his cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe show how this cold, horrible world would look in all it‘s grim glory. Hillcoat shows the de-humanizing process that this world would force on the people and a child’s innocence in the middle of it. Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McPhee both offer brilliant performances in this tale and the film was littered with excellent support from actors such as Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall. This is grim, depressing film, but a very worthy film that was did not get the audience or awards it deserved." Rating: 10/10
Player Affinity Composite Rating: 8.0/10