After numerous fits and starts and changing release dates, the silver-screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road has finally hit town. And the question now becomes, was it worth the wait? Unfortunately, the best answer I can give is a big, fat maybe. This is not a movie to be enjoyed—it’s simply too bleak for that. Instead, The Road is more a movie to admire in many ways and respect in more.
A friend of mine, after watching the film, remarked that he felt—despite being a fan of McCarthy’s novel and not particularly caring for the movie—that this adaptation of The Road is the best anyone could have hoped for. And I tend to agree with that assessment. If director John Hillcoat’s previous feature, the bleak and grimy The Proposition (2005) is any indication, then the man was tailor-made for this story and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone better suited.
Post-apocalyptic tales are nothing new, but they’re usually just a chance to indulge in some bloody action scenes peopled with guys sporting spiked leather get-ups. Despite occasional outbursts of violence, this is not the case with The Road. Instead, this is a no-frills story of an unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) traveling through the wastes of civilization’s remains. Little is spelled out, as all we’re told is that what appears to be Armageddon—in the form of a bright, unknown light—has taken place and society has disintegrated. Most animals have died off; the weather is constantly cold, overcast and rainy; and the bulk of humanity is made up of roving gangs of bandits, murderers and cannibals.
As a literary adaptation, the film stays true to the book (though Joe Penhall’s screenplay streamlines the narrative a bit), while never becoming too literal. Like the novel, Hillcoat’s film travels more as a sequence of small set pieces, as the man and his son scrape for survival, traveling towards the coast for no reason other than it’s a goal.
The plot, however, isn’t the point of the movie. Instead, it’s the relationship between a father and his boy and the will to survive in a world without the hope of ever living a normal life. To a lesser extent, it’s the need to be righteous and just in the face of such a desolate existence. Hillcoat realizes that this underlying humanity—embodied by the love of a father and son—is where the film’s center lies. Without it, the film simply invokes wrist-cutting nihilism.
The inherent gloominess of the material keeps The Road from greatness. It’s a story that just has to be humorless—there’s no way around it. But regardless of how difficult a film it is to like, it’s certainly not one that should be ignored. Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language.