The landscape itself in The Road seems mummified, so much of it drained and stiffened. Oregon, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania become acres of petrified trees, dead grass, ash. The man and the boy resemble the undead. Shriveled, pale, hard-eyed, in tattered clothing, pushing that metal cart in some perverse parody of shopping, they’re the post-apocalyptic Joad family, their number reduced to two, their promised land the vague prospect of less frigid weather along the Gulf Coast. Their story comes down to this slow, aching migration south, in the face of starvation, dwindling supplies, and other people, most of them ruthless marauders, some of them utter ghouls.
Directed by John Hillcoat and scripted by Joe Penhall, this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s bestseller is strikingly faithful and thus unremittingly bleak. Its sole glimmer of warmth emerges from its one significant extrapolation: several fleeting flashbacks to the man’s life immediately before and just after the unspecified catastrophe—a few moments stroking a horse in some rural idyll, the lovely face of his then pregnant, now dead wife. The flashbacks are accompanied by a voiceover so withered as to barely convey nostalgia. If the landscape owes something to Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the pairing of this disembodied voice with images of paradise lost recall the films of Terrence Malick, especially The Thin Red Line. But unlike those filmmakers, Hillcoat has a difficult time evoking transcendence through sensuality, spirituality, or memories of natural splendor, as though the urge to forget what can never be regained spread from the protagonist to the filmmakers. (If the novel achieves transcendence, it does so through the sheer poetry of McCarthy’s exalted prose, which lights up the imagination with pure language that needn’t be weighed down by the dictates of the unseemly realistic visuals Hillcoat is charged with creating.)
What The Road gains from its flashbacks, which find the wife reconciling herself to suicide, is an emphasis on the question of why to go on at all. The existential crisis is lost on the boy, since this husk of a world is all he knows, leaving the man to work out his reasons. These of course center completely on the child, whose unlikely survival he’s endowed with religious significance. It’s difficult to imagine a stronger choice for the role of the man with no name than Viggo Mortensen, an unreasonably youthful fiftysomething who can plausibly be both reflective and active, haggard and durable, and whose work with David Cronenberg has proven him dexterous in roles demanding quick transitions from tenderness to brutality. His bond with young co-star Kodi Smit-McPhee reads movingly. Yet for all its dynamics Mortensen’s performance somehow still falls under the film’s droning gloom. There’s plenty of action, suspense, even bits of levity in The Road, so why does it seem to sound a single sustained note?
One can easily imagine what a different sensibility might have brought to the adaptation. Michael Haneke certainly made the post-apocalyptic eerily transfixing in Time of the Wolf, employing a mise en scène as rigorously stark as his film’s setting. As evidenced in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (88) and The Proposition (05), Hillcoat’s hardly a sentimentalist and not shy when it comes to violence and despair, though slight adjustments to the novel’s bleak finale soften things a little.
A remarkable, haunting picture worth multiple viewings, The Road is still not as coldly riveting as it might have been, perhaps because of the excess of atmospherics. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s beautiful, elegiac score robs certain moments of their full poignancy. When the man slowly nudges his wedding ring along a crack in the concrete surface of a highway bridge, working up the strength to let it fall over the edge, discarding the final physical vestige of his wife, I wanted to hear the sound of the ring’s traversal, not lulling and finally distancing music. (It’s worth remembering that when the Coen Brothers adapted McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men they did so with an uncharacteristic paucity of scoring.)
There’s also the question of the road itself, or lack thereof. We don’t see much of it, and it’s possible that more time spent simply observing the man and the boy as they move along it might have placed us more firmly in their worn-out, ill-fitting shoes.