The Road

Director    John Hillcoat
Starring    Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Garrett Dillahunt, Michael Kenneth Williams
Release    25 NOV (US) 8 JAN (UK)    Certificate 15
5 stars


13th January 2010

Given that most of my articles on literary adaptations start with the line, "I haven't read the book, but..." it's quite rare that I actually have the opportunity to compare the film to the source material. Cormac McCarthy's The Road has the honour of being one of the finest novels I've ever read (and I've read two) but unfortunately suffers from being so downcast, bleak and utterly, utterly grim, this largely faithful adaptation makes for uneasy viewing.

Steel yourself. Depressing and distressing though it is, John Hillcoat's adaptation of McCarthy's prose results in one of the most terrifyingly beautiful cinematic spectacles you'll ever see. As a snowbound Brit, it's tempting to moan and wallow about our cursed weather; go and walk The Road this weekend and when you emerge from the cinema it'll feel like sunshine and lollipops in comparison.

[gallery]If 2012 represents one end of the apocalyptic spectrum - all crash-bang-wallop and finger-wagging moralising - then The Road is its polar opposite. The apocalypse has been and gone; we are not told how it happened, only that it did, and that mankind is struggling to survive. There is little sun, only ashen grey. There is barely a patch of green left on the entire planet. Food is scarce; pleasant company is non-existent. It's like Watford, but somehow worse. In this scarily real universe - real because you won't notice a single special effect - humanity is ebbing away into non-existence. Earth is choking on its death rattle, and man is dying with it.

An unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) and his boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are one of the few bands of survivors roaming rural America, following a road until they get to the coast. Why? Because if they stop, they die. In these charred remains of America, death waits behind every door and around every corner. Those that did survive, continue to do so by force; bands of cannibals roam the wastelands looking for fresh meat. Our travel companions are so au fait with expiry that one of the very first scenes sees Mortensen teaching his child how to blow his own head off, just in case. Told you it was distressing.

The relationship between father and son is what drives The Road; there's certainly very little forward thrust in the narrative, other than the constant need for man and boy to survive. Mortensen is predictably outstanding; with his skeletal face punctuated with a scraggly beard and his eyes sunk deep in his head, he's a wretched picture of despair. Allowed just the one scene of self-pity by McCarthy's stark script, it's nonetheless a devastatingly effective one; a strained outpouring of emotion that'll choke up the audience down to a man. It's an Oscar-worthy performance.

Smit-McPhee is equally effective as the boy, never over-egging simple lines or appearing too precocious. The relationship between man and boy is totally convincing: they are father and son. When the boy is later labelled an "angel" by another traveller, his father replies fiercely: "To me, he's a God." And you believe him.

Though Hillcoat's usage of a muted palette and post 9/11 imagery paints a haunting picture - the wide open spaces of Pennsylvania acting as his canvas - it's the small, personal moments that stick in the memory. Returning to his childhood home, the man sees his height scrawled on his kitchen door frame and loses himself smiling for just a second.

Later, during a brief moment of solace, the boy looks quizzically at his father's knowledge of the new items they've found. "You must look at me like I'm from another world," says the man, fully aware that, in fact, he is. Every emotional beat is conveyed in the intimacy of their relationship; there is no need for grandstanding of any kind. Tellingly, the simple holding of a hand is perhaps the movie's most touching moment.

Critics will say it has no direction; that it's just a series of depressing vignettes strung together with scant regard to form and function. But isn't that just life? Right from the start, it's obvious The Road has no happy ending: every step merely delays the inevitable. But that's what gives the movie its vitality: everything matters, and every word uttered could be the last. It may not have a conventional three act structure, but it has heart and soul.

This is a movie about life and death, but above all, it's about hope. It doesn't flinch from the horrors it presents (although the book's most disturbing scene was left on the cutting room floor), but Hillcoat never forgets the human element is the only thing that matters; as long as there are "good guys" who are "carrying the fire", humanity still has a chance. Think beyond the story's simplicity and the movie's grander themes are infinitely more rewarding.

A terrifying horror falsely dressed up as worthier-than-thou Oscar bait, don't let the mis-marketing fool you: The Road is a highly emotional, involving, palm-sweatingly tense movie that will scar you for life if you let it. Exhausting to watch but oddly exhilirating to experience, it's a film you'll watch once but will never forget.

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