No country for anyone

John Hillcoat wrestles Cormac McCarthy and winds up in a dead heat

Nov 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

It probably seems odd to praise a film that, in the end, exhausts its audience. And John Hillcoat's faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road is just that: two hours of bleak tension that anyone would be hard-pressed to call entertaining. But beyond the harrowing and horrifying scenarios that unfold in this survivalist drama, there is the touching tale of a father struggling to keep his son safe while maintaining the last shreds of his humanity. And though McCarthy's quasi-biblical parable doesn't build to an emotionally satisfying conclusion (mostly due to the monotony of his narrative), Hillcoat does a terrific job of exploring the desperate fears of parental love and what it means to be a decent person in an indecent world.

The apocalypse has come. We don't know why or how; we just know that the planet has been reduced to a slow dying cinder. As revealed in flashback, the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his pregnant wife, the Woman (Charlize Theron), were there to witness it. When their Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is born, the Woman falls into despair, unable to face the idea of raising a child in a world destined for extinction. "They will rape me ... and they will rape him. ... They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you won't face it. You'd rather wait for it to happen," she tells her husband. And then she kills herself. (It's that kind of movie.)

Eight years later, father and son search for a sliver of salvation in a crushingly sad and brutally desperate landscape. The temperature is dropping, dead trees collapse without warning, and starving survivors are reduced to thievery and even cannibalism. The two head south, and every encounter is fraught with danger and hardship. But where the Man is shaped by loss and grief, the Boy remains generous and trusting. This blackened world is the only world he has ever known, and, though he understands and fears its dangers, he has not yet let those fears define his life. 

Is the road they travel the path to destruction or deliverance? What differentiates a "good guy" from a "bad guy"?  Is there a place for moral pragmatism? These are the heavy themes Hillcoat wrestles with, and, if not for his fealty to McCarthy's stylized affectations, The Road could have delivered a hell of an emotional wallop. 

Unlike the Coen brothers' impeccable adaptation of No Country For Old Men, Hillcoat's slavish treatment misses the underlying romanticism of McCarthy's work while making too literal his more ponderous instincts. The Coens knew when to subvert the author's austere severity with humor and adrenaline-fueled action. Here, Hillcoat's tone is relentless and almost oppressively tense, with only a few hard-won moments of safety and joy. The result is a movie that is emotionally haunting but never achieves the deep resonance it strives for.

On almost every other level, however, The Road is a cinematic achievement. The acting is superlative, with a cadaverous Mortensen bringing both intensity and compassion to his role while Smit-McPhee (who bears a startling resemblance to Theron) convinces in a uniquely difficult part. The film's production values are similarly astounding. Post-apocalyptic cinema is an art director's dream, inspiring some of the most memorable visions of hellish dystopia ever concocted for the screen. Whether it's The Road Warrior films, 12 Monkeys, or I Am Legend, wreckage and ruin seem to arouse set designers in uniquely profound ways.

The Road's single production misstep is Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' discordantly out-of-place soundtrack. In a setting where death and decay saturate every corner, their labored orchestration, no matter how sparse, makes it difficult to leave our living world behind. Better to have kept things organic, letting the gasping agonies of the failing planet to provide a sonic backdrop. For all the melancholy and pain that their music attempts to invoke, Hillcoat would have been better served to find those deep emotional connections in his story. 

Ultimately, The Road is not for everyone (my colleague Corey Hall hated it). But for those who have a high tolerance for despair-driven epiphanies, it is a lyrically poignant parable of self-sacrifice and spiritual survival.

At the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].