The Road, 1

Director: John Hillcoat
USA, 2009, 119mins, rated 15
Screening: The Phoenix, 8 January 2010

Viewing The Road, my fears of Hollywood having meddled in this post-apocalyptic fable by author Cormac McCarthy were put to rest. The film is actually a remarkably faithful adaptation of the book. Its lead – a craggy, sunken-eyed Viggo Mortensen – puts in a fine performance as the gaunt, bearded survivor. His voice, a rasping broken whisper, provides the film’s occasional narration and works well as a device. It certainly helped allay my fears that McCarthy's own lyrical voice might be lost in the re-telling – his pared down poetry of despair being the only beautiful thing in an otherwise harrowing, nightmarish journey without respite or a clear end.

I needn't have worried in this regard, for The Road is certainly a harrowing film. The washed out scenery which director Hillcoat has assembled (without, it might be noted, the use of heavy CGI), is a paean to a landscape scoured clean of hope. He does a fine job as well in introducing a new element, in the sounds of a groaning, creaking, disintegrating nature. There is no sanctuary for the lingering survivors of the unexplained global disaster, no way stations or empty houses which are not stalked by the spectres of hunger and fear.

Through this bleak landscape, the nameless man and his son trek carrying "the fire," which is either a fable of their own to keep hope alive through the long nights, or else a last, fading glimmer of civilization. You are free to choose which, but in the suffering faces of both boy and man, there is something that seems to suggest a knowing nod to the latter. They also carry a gun, with only two bullets left in it, making it perhaps less a tool for the defence of their lives than a means of a less than horrific exit from its misery. For they are not alone, either on the road or in this ashen wilderness.

While the pair seem only a few canned goods away from succumbing to either sheer starvation or numbing cold, this is not what they fear the most. Cannibalistic gangs of equally begrimed humans prowl the dead earth. When the last tin of food is gone, and the final two humans sit down facing each other over the cold grey ashes, that will be the last. The evidence of this unravelling is seen as they travel, in the form of skulls and ribcages picked clean from a world devoid of any species but their own. In one important exchange, a fellow wanderer muses on the fate of the last living human. Would they know? It wouldn't matter he concludes, they'd just be.

A lot of The Road is of course just that, being. Life whittled down to its most primal urge. Hiding, running, shivering in the terrible grey light, the two do what they must to survive, and at the same time, cling to their own fragile humanity. In this at least, much of what made the book so moving, shines through. Hillcoat has done an excellent job with the locations to paint a portrait of a world that is not just dying, but is already dead and gone.

All that remains then is the man and the boy whom he is determined to protect with his last breath. All they have is each other and their binding, fierce love. If I have a complaint, if the film stumbles where the book soldiers on, it might be in those sequences where the few other human survivors enter the film. There is a subtle something – missing from the shambling cannibals and the few other survivors that the pair meet – a depth perhaps. It is where the film looses its focus when compared to the book, if anywhere, and starts to resemble other, lesser takes on the same grim subject.

It is a problem that most adaptations face, being forced to shoehorn the full complexity of a book, even in this case a relatively short one, into the span of a mere two hours. The two main protagonists are adroitly done, in broad strokes at least, but some of the others seem to have been left on the margins or painted in less fully. There is an important scene involving a pregnant couple, either entirely missing from the film or else reduced to a flickering event seen only from a distance. A later encounter with an older blind man, prophetically named Ely, is likewise not as fully fleshed out in the film as it is in the book. Commonplace, perhaps, but in these instances, it weakens the story, or at least the motivations of the two main travellers, as these encounters are formative ones which more fully explain and explore the fears and insecurities held by the man and boy.

This brings me to one final, minor bump, found towards the end at the two's southerly travels, but not in the book. They encounter an unexpected sign of life in the flight of an iridescent beetle. The symbolism feels a bit forced, and unnecessary. There is hope, of a sort, already in the ending, so I’m not certain why the filmmakers veer away from the path they have so unflinchingly followed up until now. Perhaps the book's final message was rated somewhere as just too unbearably grim: that the good guys have lost, as well as the bad, and the fire is carried, barely flickering, towards a horizon that does not offer up any false promises. There is love – and the bond it forges in the human heart – but sometimes even this must be left by the wayside for life to move on.

by Eric Edwards

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