‘The Road’ isn’t worth a detour

Director John Hillcoat’s film version of Cormac McCarthy’s bestselling novel encounters too many bumps along its way.

The Road (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Road
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s not easy to make a movie out of one of the most acclaimed, bestselling books of the last decade, and one that charmed Oprah to boot. So the filmmakers who tackled Cormac McCarthy’s The Road had their work cut out for them. The book is an original, extraordinarily moving and beautifully written work that is effective on many different levels. It tells the story of a man and his son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. While the plot is bleak, the novel is rich in language, emotion, metaphor and description – all elements that don’t transfer easily to the screen.
What has been transferred is the bleakness, and director John Hillcoat tries to make up for this with sweeping symphonic music and epic vistas meant to convey a sense of gravitas. But it doesn’t quite work, and this film proves the rule that adaptations of great books result in lackluster movies.
It couldn’t have helped that McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, a novel that might have seemed equally difficult to adapt, turned out to be, in the hands of the Coen brothers, one of the decade’s most memorable films.
Hillcoat, who made the gritty Australian crime epic The Proposition, seemed an ideal choice for adapting the book. He and Joe Penhall, the screenwriter, have perhaps done the best job anyone could have. At least they avoided the most obvious pitfall, making the film into a sensational sci-fi story. That’s a danger because the book is set in a future world in which life as we know it has been destroyed in some kind of cataclysm – what happened and why is never explained either in the book or the film. The sun’s rays no longer reach the Earth, and so no plants can grow. The film opens several years after the catastrophe, when there are almost no survivors left. Although there are some action scenes, the plot is minimal. The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) simply walk along the highway, going into abandoned houses and stores searching for canned food. They are heading for the sea, but it is clear The Man knows well that they will find nothing different when they reach it. On the way, they must avoid other travelers at all costs: The surviving humans are nearly all cannibals. As McCarthy puts it in the book, “The world was . . .largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes.”
The Boy was born just a few days after the calamity and has no memory of any other kind of world. But the deep love of the parent and child would be maudlin if it were not set against a backdrop of such cruelty and danger. And the cruelty is certainly there on screen, mainly in two harrowing sequences, which are not for the faint of heart.
Mortensen gracefully captures the father’s devotion and will to keep his son alive, but Smit- McPhee is simply too cute to be convincing. He acts well, but he seems all wrong for the part. He looks too healthy and strong for a child who has never seen a ray of sunshine. My main criticism of the book was that the child seemed overly resilient and too beautifully behaved to be believable (although it might be worth enduring the collapse of humanity if that would produce a child as obedient as this one). In the film, Smit-McPhee just doesn’t convey the constant terror that the child would feel in this situation.
There are two other prominent actors in small but key roles. Charlize Theron plays The Man’s vanished wife in a series of banal flashbacks that are the weakest part of the film. Robert Duvall, as a loner they meet along the way, chews the scenery as if he were as starved as the character he plays.
For those who haven’t read the book, this film will simply be high-minded but dull with a few gory moments. Those who appreciated the book will be sorely disappointed. There are moments here and there when there is a kind of poetry in the bleakness, but they are few and far between.