There’s redemption, of a sort, at the end of the movie The Road. You can tell because it feels like the fist that has been squeezing your heart against your spine has finally let go.
Most of the credit goes to Viggo Mortensen, who plays a father trying to guide his son through the post-Apocalyptic world heaving its last dying breaths. Mortensen comes across simultaneously as desperate yet resolved, with vulnerability hanging about him in the air the way a man’s breath hangs in front of him on a frigid rainy day. He’s raw all the way through. If he doesn’t get an Oscar for this one, then the voting was rigged.
Overall, John Hillcoat’s film adaptation stays faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel. The film version lacks the “long, continuous journey” feel that McCarthy’s book had; instead, the movie, because of the visual nature of the medium itself, accentuates the episodic nature of the journey. That works to disengage viewers a little, who end up observing the story rather than walking the road with the characters. It’s hard not to watch, though, and think “Thank God that’s not me out there.”
The Road smartly steers clear of any Mad Max view of the world. Instead, it’s a love story between a father and son. As a dad myself, I know a little bit about relationships like that, and McCarthy—and Hillcoat—nail it. It doesn’t matter that the world has gone to hell—so long as Mortensen has his son, he has everything he needs. He has purpose and he has love and that’s pretty much all that matters. “The child is my warrant,” Mortensen says during a voiceover. “If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.”
On screen, the relationship lacks the quiet but intense intimacy it has in the book, but Hillcoat captures it in other ways. Father and son watch an entire forest of dead trees burn in the middle of the night. They just stand, side by side, and watch.
Later, in a mall, Mortensen plies a forgotten can of Coke from a vending machine and gives it to his son, who’s never had a carbonated beverage before. The son, realizing the rarity of the gift, insists his father share it with him. Hillcoat offers a number of such moments that give the film real resonance.
Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Mortensen’s son with attentive eyes. They lack the profound, haunted sadness Mortensen wears in his, but that speaks volumes about the father-son relationship. Father has helped son retain at least some sense of wonder and humanity in a world were little of either still exists.
Hillcoat also pulls an inspired performance from Charlize Theron, whose character has a slightly expanded role in the film compared to the book. Robert Duval makes an excellent cameo, as does Michael K. Williams.
Hillcoat’s vision of the world is appropriately cinematic, which is one of the great strengths and great weaknesses of the adaptation. McCarthy’s spare prose leaves much to the reader’s imagination, which is always a treat for me as a reader, whereas Hillcoat has to splash the grime and decay big and bold. I suspect he’d be really great working with lush, beautiful, sweeping panoramas, but for The Road, the wide shot of the world is gray and brown and drizzly.
Hillcoat used authentic locations (most of them around Pittsburgh but some in post-Katrina New Orleans) to create his eerie, blasted-out landscape. As a result, the movie always feels real. You want to brush the grit out of your hair and wring the wet out of your sopping jacket halfway through the film.
A few critics have complained that the movie moves too slowly, that nothing really happens. I actually think there were spots where Hillcoat could have slowed down even more to provide more opportunity for introspection.
The films flaws, though, are minor compared to the harrowing impact of Hillcoat’s final product: a series of little gut punches, one right after the other. You’ll be glad to find relief at the end of The Road—but don’t be surprised if you want to start the journey over again, too.
(P.S.: I probably don’t need to say this, but if you’ve not read The Road, go. Now. Log off and pick up the novel and read it. It’s profound stuff and ferocious writing.)