Friday, November 27, 2009

The Road: Futile journey

The Road (2009) • View trailer for The Road
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, torture, cannibalism, nudity and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.27.09
Buy DVD: The Road • Buy Blu-Ray: The Road [Blu-ray]

Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a story for folks who felt that his No Country for Old Men was too cheerful and uplifting.

Director John Hillcoat's film adaptation is designed for viewers seeking a reason to return home and slit their wrists.
The man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) must keep
a wary eye on their surroundings while traveling by day; encounters with other
human beings are likely to be deadly ... or worse.

I cannot, in good conscience, imagine any set of circumstances that would prompt me to recommend this movie. To anybody.

Granted, McCarthy's harrowing novel took the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for literature; the author's mesmerizing prose  and much richer characterizations  are spellbinding in their intensity. Although driven by a ghastly premise and heartbreaking plot, McCarthy is too skilled a writer  too adept a wordsmith  for his book to be ignored, should one pick it up.

But that doesn't make the experience worthwhile.

I've long been a fan of Dan Simmons' works, which as yet haven't been adapted to the large or small screen. Simmons is well known in the fantasy and sci-fi community, where his long and dense books are deservedly celebrated. I eagerly anticipated diving into The Terror, one of his recent historical novels, which blends chilling fantasy with the fact-based account of a doomed 19th century attempt to find the mythical ocean passage just below the North Pole.

Simmons' blend of gripping prose and meticulous research made the 992-page book a compelling read. But the story's conclusion proved so infuriating that I deeply resented what I now regard as utterly wasted time. I wanted  still want, nearly a year later  those many, many hours of my life back.

Viewers of Hillcoat's adaptation of The Road are apt to feel the same way, and it's only 113 minutes long.

Readers who were able to extract weighty philosophical issues and great moral truths from McCarthy's novel won't find them in this unrelentingly bleak and soul-deadening film adaptation. McCarthy's view of mankind never has been that optimistic to begin with, and his indictment of human behavior is particularly stern in The Road.

Screenwriter Joe Penhall gets that much right, but he overlooks the essential inner musings that McCarthy employed to make his primary characters at least somewhat palatable. Penhall and Hillcoat have done nothing but prove that some books simply defy visual translation; The Road cannot work as a movie, because the form demands that it become no more than an interminably depressing trivialization of its source.

The time is some unspecified point in the future, following an unknown cataclysm  experienced, by those who saw it, as a huge flash of light  that has scourged the entire Earth (we assume) to a burnt-out cinder. The event appears to have been celestial rather than man-made: perhaps a huge solar flare or a massive meteor strike. The only thing pointing against the doomsday scenario of thermonuclear warfare is the absence of radiation sickness ... but this isn't a detail that anybody ponders.

Seasons have ceased to exist; the sky's gray grimness and the very atmosphere's choking concentrations of dust give little distinction between day and night. All animals have been eradicated as well, along with plant and insect life; lightning strikes from frequent thunderstorms routinely set fire to the long-dead husks of trees, spewing ash to further poison the air.

Roughly a decade has passed since this apocalyptic event, during which a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee)  "each the other's world entire," as McCarthy describes them in his novel  have doggedly survived by scavenging food in abandoned dwellings, and siphoning gas or oil to help light fires at night. The temperature is relentlessly, eternally cold, and getting colder; they slowly move toward the coast, hoping to find warmer weather.

They also carefully avoid open highways, which are patrolled by vicious bands of men  rarely women  who seek defenseless stragglers as food. Cannibalism has, for such amoral psychopaths, become the only means of survival.

That's the entire story.

Really, I mean it: That's all.

The man and boy slog, one numberless day following another. They try to evade but occasionally encounter dangerous fellow travelers. They stumble across or uncover repeated evidence of human abattoirs. They frequently run, blind panic supplying the energy forever sapped by slow starvation.

The man carefully carries a pistol with two bullets. Not for self-defense, but for suicide, should they be ambushed and unable to escape.

Brief flashbacks allow the man to think back to when the event occurred, mere days before his very pregnant wife (Charlize Theron) gave birth to their son. They had to manage the birth themselves; nobody was around to help. They remained a family unit of three for some period of time  five, six, maybe seven years  and then ... weren't. The man and boy now travel alone.

Penhall's script doesn't even try to explain the means by which this man, woman and child survived for so many years in their own home, with civilized society having been erased. That's an irritating detail to leave out, because it sure seems like they'd have been overwhelmed by marauders before six months had passed.

We also get no sense of what happened to their friends, neighbors and other townsfolk, beyond the brief suggestion that all "decent folks" simply gave up and killed themselves.


End-of-the-world movie scenarios enjoy brief vogue from time to time, the first notable example being the 1959 adaptation of Nevil Shute's On the Beach, which focused on a group of Australians awaiting the nuclear fallout that has blanketed the rest of the world.

Our rising awareness of radiation sickness and "nuclear winter" led to a pair of made-for-TV films in 1983: The Day After and Testament, the latter of which secured big-screen release and an Academy Award nomination for star Jane Alexander.

All three of these projects, however, can be characterized by a strong sense of mankind's nobility. All three focused on both individuals and smallish social units that struggled to preserve some semblance of society. Religion  belief in God  provided a moral compass, even as the situation grew ever more bleak.

While all three sagas held out no hope, we at least had the satisfaction of imagining that humanity would perish with some semblance of dignity.

McCarthy obviously believes otherwise. Religion's comfort is nowhere to be seen in this story, and Hillcoat's film is nothing but an excuse to wallow in the complete debasement of human behavior.

The man and boy encounter no other people: only barbaric, two-legged animals.

The story's point  the philosophical issue on which McCarthy's novel turns  is whether the initially kind and good-hearted father can retain his humanity, his sense of right and wrong, while having to become ever more aggressive in his efforts to protect himself and his son.

And, as well, whether the boy can retain his relative innocence, compassion and purity, and cling to his belief in the purpose behind staying alive: to continue the "passing of the fire," a metaphor referring to one's heart and soul, and the preservation of humanity.

Mortensen capably conveys his character's soul-deadened despair, although the bulk of his "acting" is confined to looking desperate, hungry and scared; it's hard to emote from beneath so many layers of thick clothing. He stretches his thespic chops a bit more during the flashback scenes with Theron, who  unfortunately  never conveys a strong impression of her character.

That makes sense for her husband, as we see him in the present; his memories of her have become vague and iconic. But we outside viewers need a much stronger understanding of what motivates this woman.

Smit-McPhee is the stand-out here; his performance is heartbreaking. To whatever degree this film addresses the moral complexities of McCarthy's novel, Smit-McPhee deserves sole credit. We cannot help sharing this oddly child-like boy's anxiety and terror. We wish him moments of joy: excuses for his pinched features to break into a smile.

Production designer Chris Kennedy does an exhaustively credible job of depicting this devastated Earth, from fire-ravaged communities and spookily isolated houses, to gray landscapes and the black, skeletal remnants of forests. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe's grainy film stock helps suggest this environment's noxious atmosphere.

Between the two, they make this landscape look grimly, horrifyingly real.

But to what end?

Hillcoat's film, although apparently wanting to be mythic, has no point of view, no purpose, no core message. Watching it serves no purpose, offers no enlightenment. This adaptation of The Road is, in every sense, a waste of time.

And a dreadfully dispiriting waste of time, at that.

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