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Non-Review Review: The Road

Fire is a recurring image in the work of Cormac McCarthy. Particularly the notion of a generational line “carrying the fire” and being the good guys. There’s a moment at the end of No Country For Old Men, another adaptation of McCarthy’s work, where the tired sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones shares a weird dream he’s been having with his wife, where he finds himself walking down a long road, and he passes his father – who is carrying a torch. It’s a powerful image, which really cuts to the heart of the piece. For those wondering what that road and that torch may actually look like… well, there’s this.

The Road less traveled...

I read The Road. I loved The Road. It’s a sparse allegorical narrative about a father and son (only ever known as The Man and The Boy) as they make their way through a dead America, looking for something… though they aren’t quite sure what (they want to reach the coast, but nobody knows what awaits them). The novel has a raw power about it because it’s sparse – the prose is contained, never lengthy, never excessive, never consciously eloquent. It’s a novel that could – if you have an afternoon – be read in a single sitting. Of course, it’s so bleak and soul destroying that you’d probably hang yourself shortly after, but it could be done.

So adapting it for screen would be difficult. I used the word “allegorical” to describe the story, and there’s probably no better word. Very little actually happens. They walk, they hide, they scavenge, they eat. The problem with the film version is that it seems to lack McCarthy’s brevity in relating the tale. There’s really not much here in the movie (just as there was little in the book), but it’s through tone, imagery and metaphor that the story makes its point. Being honest, the movie can’t help but drag – as though somehow it feels that a work as beautiful and powerful as McCarthy’s novel deserves two hours of screentime… just because. Two hours of next to nothing happening is a long slog, regardless of how interesting your ideas are.

Which is a shame, because the film has a lot going for it. The washed out colours – heavily desaturated – look almost exactly as I imagined them on flicking through the book. This isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but it is hell on earth (or as close as we may come). The production values really look top notch and the location scouts should be heavily praised. There’s a macabre beauty about every shot in the film, something that is just a bit haunting. Be it ransacked supermarkets or burnt-down fairgrounds, nothing feels wrong or stands out of place.

Director John Hillcoat also manages to skilfully evoke the imagery of the book. “How would you know you were the last man?” the Man asks of one point of an elderly stranger they’ve found wandering along the road (the film suggests he may be the Christian God, equally lost). “You just know,” he replies. It’s that kind of film. The Boy constantly seeks reassurance from his father, “We’re the still the good guys?” Whatever that may mean in a world so upside down. To the Man, the Boy is is his world, a representation of the human spirit, born without original sin (the Boy doesn’t know how to hold a gun when it is handed to him, nor does he know of materialist concepts like Coke or Christmas) – the Boy is “the flame”. If he can be guided and shepherded through this vast human wasteland, perhaps it may mean something. “If he is not the word of God,” the Man observes to himself, “God never spoke.”

Religious imagery runs through the film. Not withstanding the notion of a child without sin or the allegory of rebirth, the movie sees the Man and the Boy resting in the remains of a small church – the religious symbols somehow enduring even on long collapsed walls – and there’s various biblical references thrown into the mix as well. The movie (like the book) never offers an explanation for what caused the collapse, but it seems safe to infer that it was man’s fault – the price of our collective sins. McCarthy has always had a fondness for religious imagery and metaphors, and it transitions here. It’s interesting to read the story any number of ways, but McCarthy himself has reportedly confirmed it was inspired by his own thoughts about his son.

The story undoubtedly works better in prose than it does on screen. The movie borrows from the various incidences and occurrences along the road as father and son continue their journey, but it’s just too dull and lifeless to really engage. It’s odd though, because the movie actually seemed much lighter than the book, and ultimately more hopeful (omitting some fo the darker sequences – though people who just came from the film may be amazed that there was anything “too dark” to make it to screen – and emphasising the various aspects of hope throughout the piece). Still the simple fact is that the movie is simple too long and exhausting to make a lasting impression. Hillocat is a great director and can stage the various episodic encounters along the journey for maximum impact, but the movie can’t help but feel like a bit of a slog.

It’s a shame, because it’s a well put together film which carries across the core of McCarthy’s ideas very well. Viggo Mortensen is great, as ever (although his introspective observations don’t transfer particularly well to voice over – one gets the sense the movie would have worked better mostly silent, rather than punctuating with his narration). Still, the film can’t help but fall short. It’s an interesting film, and well worth your time if you have an interest in post-apocalyptic tales or the work of McCarthy, but it simply can’t manage to make the same impact as the other adaptation of a great McCarthy novel a few years back.

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14 Responses

  1. Good review Darren. This is a tough one to write about, I would know, took me a week to pen more than the opening line 🙂 Interesting alternative to commercial cinema, just not terribly entertaining. Schindler’s List was bleak but it still entertained me. (If that doesn’t sound too macabre)

  2. havent read the book but i thought the film was great.
    yes its a slog but thats the whole point of it really. there are enough little flickers of hope to make it worthwhile

    • Yep, I think I came across more negative than I meant to. It was beautiful and moving, but there isn’t – in my opinion – two hours worth of material here.

  3. I also loved the book and I thought this was a great movie that really mirrored the mood and pacing of McCarthy’s novel. Only problem is that it’s probably way too dark and hard to get into if you haven’t read the book, but I really dug it all the same. Big fan of John Hillcoat too, check out The Proposition if you haven’t already. Good review though, man. Love hearing what people think about this one.

    • Yep, The Proposition is on my list of films I need to see. Last I checked we didn’t have a BluRay release here yet, though (and it looks like a film which justifies the format with is sparse surroundings).

      • Yeah, good call on that one. The Australian outback is something else to behold. I should follow suit on this one even though I already own it on DVD.

  4. Awesome, I wanted to see this in theater but backed away last Fall. It seems most people had the same lukewarm reaction to it than you did Darren. I will check it out for myself!

    • I’d wholeheartedly recommend a look, but this is definitely a “not for everyone” film.
      My parents rented it after I saw it and they turned it off about an hour in – not because it was bad (they conceded it was very good), but because they literally couldn’t take any more. It’s the first time in nearly five years they’ve turned off a film.

  5. I haven’t read the book but I thought the film was great, if a tad depressing though. It’s one of those films that lingers with you for a while. And I thought your use of the “macabre” is very apt.

    • Yep, the book certainly lingered with me. And I thing the visuals from the film were just amazing.

  6. This IS a tough one to review…(I wrote a mere 99 words on it) but I think it’s quite good. I didn’t read the book and sometimes the sum of the parts is not as good as the whole but the performances from Mortenson and Theron (who shines with a few moments) are excellent as is the direction and art direction.

    • The “sum of the parts” bit there actually neatly articulates kinda what I feel like after seeing it. Individually, nearly everything worked, but it just didn’t really fuse together.

  7. Sad’s usually the word I hear to describe this movie, but it isn’t sad, it’s bleak. The emotional core of the movie really failed to flow. Even if it did look pathetically beautiful, there wasn’t much pathos. Great review, Darren. Other than Viggo, I felt that much of the talent on board was underused.

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