Friday, December 04, 2009

Review - The Road

I started to fear for The Road almost as soon as it started. The film opens with sun-dappled images of content domesticity, which is as far from the post-apocalyptic landscape conjured by Cormac McCarthy as one could imagine, although my fears were largely misplaced. This deceptively upbeat introduction is nothing more than a dream of a life long lost, and the film abruptly cuts back to reality, as a traveller known only as The Man (Viggo Mortensen) awakes into a far more desolate and hostile environment. In truth, The Road is a fairly commendable adaptation of a difficult novel. John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall don't try to put a positive spin on the material, they avoid lapsing into sentimentality, they don't attempt to explain the cataclysmic event that lead to this point, and their atmospheric representation of the book's world is remarkable. Aside from the slight expansion of some pre-disaster scenes involving The Man's wife, the filmmakers stick slavishly to the source material, so we are left asking the puzzling question – why does material that was so vivid and engrossing on the page often feel so flat on screen?

The Road is a simple tale of love and survival. A man and his son (Mortensen and the talented newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) wander through an ashen world, which has been forever altered by whatever disaster it was that bought mankind to the edge of extinction. All of their possessions can be contained within a single trolley, which they drag behind them as they move from one deserted location to the next, slowly heading southwards, towards the coast. The road they follow is fraught with peril, inhabited as it is by gangs of marauding cannibals, but the pair cling to the tiny sliver of hope that the coast provides, and to their own sense of humanity, in a world that seems to be without it. They're surrounded by darkness, but they're carrying the flame.

As written by McCarthy, The Road it is a harrowing experience, but thanks to the stark poetry of the author's language and the strength of the central relationship, it remains an oddly hopeful one. That core relationship is one thing the film gets unequivocally right, with Mortensen once again inhabiting his character – both physically and emotionally – with utter conviction. Bearded, emaciated and bedraggled, Mortensen plays The Man as a character who has gone past the limits of his endurance, but who is driven ceaselessly forward by the primal urge to protect his son, the only thing in the world he has left. Having been born into this world, The Boy has no knowledge of what came before, and he has retained a sense of innocence and naïveté. He is played in a refreshingly unaffected manner by Smit-McPhee, and between them, the two actors develop a powerfully authentic bond. In particular, Mortensen really makes us feel the unimaginable agony of a father who carries two bullets in his pistol, and who knows he may be forced to use one on his only son, to spare him from an even worse fate.

At one point, The Man holds the barrel of his pistol against The Boy's head and comes agonisingly close to pulling the trigger. This incident occurs during a particularly close shave with a group of cannibals, one of many set-pieces Hillcoat handles with confidence. In his previous film The Proposition, this Australian director proved himself skilled at establishing a richly involving atmosphere and at staging exciting, tense sequences; in fact, The Road is ultimately a collection of impressive standalone sequences. The filmmakers successfully portray The Man's relief when they stumble across a store full of supplies, or The Boy's perplexed delight at tasting a can of Coca-Cola (the first he has ever tasted). Likewise, there are great character turns along the way, with Michael K Williams giving appearing late on as a thief who is revealed to be every bit as desperate and vulnerable as the main protagonist, and Robert Duvall turning in an outstanding cameo as an elderly man they meet on the trail.

I can't help feeling that these moments never really cohere into a wholly satisfying film experience, though. In between those high points, The Road is sluggishly paced, and the flashbacks to The Man's past (in which Charlize Theron gives a perfectly fine, if superfluous, performance as his wife) are ill-advised additions that only serve to disrupt the film's momentum further. Other directorial choice are similarly counter-productive, with Mortensen's voiceover and the disappointing score failing to add anything of note to the package, and they all bear the hallmarks of a film that has struggled to find some way of expressing the depth and meaning of McCarthy's work in a truly filmic way. One always gets the sense that it's unfair to constantly compare a film adaptation to the book it has been adapted from, but what else can you say about a work that has not been made with enough imagination to allow it to take on a cinematic life of its own? It exists as a half-decent facsimile of a great novel, nothing more, and for all of its individually fine moments, Hillcoat's road ultimately leads nowhere.