Director: John Hillcoat
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron
Running Time: 111 minutes
Adapting a successful novel for the screen is always a dangerous game. For every Fight Club there’s a Breakfast of Champions, for every Clockwork Orange there’s a Golden Compass. The Road,John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Oprah-endorsed Pulitzer prize-winning novel, manages to avoid sliding into sentimental pap, but fundamentally fails to engage on the same level as its source material.
The film tells the story of an unnamed father and son, played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, who wander through a desolate post-apocalyptic America, heading south towards the coast. More reserved than the novel, we see only hints of the decline of humanity in such conditions – we see cannibal gangs hunt and gather but never feed, while tiny skulls on sticks take the place of the baby-on-a-spit. To give the director credit, the unfalteringly bleak and harsh world is startlingly convincing compared to the efforts of popcorn-apocalypse blockbusters such asTerminator Salvation. This realism lifts tense scenes of the father and son hiding from the gangs, particularly when they find themselves stuck in a basement along with the gang’s mangled and half-eaten prisoners.
Among the performances too, there is much to be commended. Mortensen invests his character with a normality and desperation that makes his efforts seem all the more tragic. We wonder if this man would still live by a moral code if he didn’t have to set an example for his son. Charlize Theron also does much with the role of his wife, expanded for the adaptation in flashbacks that contrast with the feral survival of the pair without slipping into a reverie about a lost and saintly feminine figure. Her character is flawed and remembered as such by the Man, which makes his grief and love for her all the more human. Guy Pearce, star of Hillcoat’s Aussie Western The Proposition, and The Wire’s Michael K. Williams also appear in cameos, but it is Robert Duvall who steals the film as an old man the pair meet on their travels. In a handful of scenes he invests his character with a history and pathos that the central pairing fail to achieve over the course of the entire film.
Indeed, the central problem with The Road is that once they stop all the running and hiding, the father-son pairing is simply unconvincing, and this is due to Smit-McPhee’s performance. In a world of little colour, no music, and one dusty can of Coke, it’s amazing that the tired histrionics of Hollywood child acting has managed to survive. When the emotional weight of the film shifts from Mortensen onto the little shoulders of Smit-McPhee, the film flatlines, and you’re left wanting to feel more than you actually do. No doubt a film made by talented people, and with the best of intentions, it’s sad that due to this shallowness at it’s core, it joins the ranks of so-so adaptations that can’t help but mar your enjoyment of the original. I read the Road on a rickety bus with a hole in the floor, Godspeed on repeat, hunched up against a window buffeted by rain as the bus trundled through the Carlow countryside. It’s sad to think I won’t be able to experience such a memorable novel again without thinking of some whiny kid.