Mark Reviews Movies

THE ROAD (2009)

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: John Hillcoat

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce

MPAA Rating: R (for some violence, disturbing images and language)

Running Time: 1:59

Release Date: 11/25/09

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Something just doesn't quite click in John Hillcoat's movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road.

McCarthy uses the template of post-apocalyptic clichés as the backdrop for an examination of the relationship between father and son. Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall, though, can't seem to get past those background bits. McCarthy's book is about challenging expectations, while Hillcoat's movie is about matching them as they exist before McCarthy's subversion.

Sure, the father/son relationship is there, but it's simplified. The stars of The Road are apocalyptic images of a mainly deserted world and the suspense of living amongst roving bands of cannibals. I suppose that's sort of faithful to the book but in a forest-for-the-trees sort of way.

After a major global disaster, a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are left to wander the United States, trying to make their way to the East Coast in hopes of finding something better.

Anything would be better than what they're living with now. Walking down an empty highway with a shopping cart full of provisions, scavenging for food and supplies in deserted houses, and hiding from roaming gangs that have resorted to cannibalism to stay alive, survival is key on the man's mind.

In case things should go awry, though, he has a pistol with two bullets left—one for his son, and one for him.

The movie follows them on their journey. The man tells us everything in a voice over. He dreams of his dead wife (Charlize Theron), who couldn't take the thought of being caught by the gangs. He still loves her but resents her decision. He loves his son, too—more than anything else—and either wants the boy to carry on after he's dead or, if the kid's not ready, go to the open grave with him.

It's a bleak, depressing story, and one that Hillcoat seems unable to wrap his head around. The characters say the words and do what they do, but it all feels like going through the motions. When the man points the gun at his son's head while hiding in an upstairs bathroom, ready to pull the trigger if the cannibals downstairs discover where they are, it's a moment that's missing the unbearable weight of the situation.

Perhaps it's because what's led us to that point focuses on the sensational. Hillcoat gives us some stunning images of a decimated city—ships dry-docked in the middle of an interstate—a dead, black-as-ash forest, and wide shots of the man and boy walking down the road to hopeful salvation. He also provides some intense moments, like the man in a standoff with a gang member who's stumbled upon them in the woods, the two discovering a locked basement full of people being kept alive for the cannibals to feed off their limbs one at a time, or the above-mentioned scene in the bathroom.

They're intense, to be sure, but where's the unspeakable stress, horror, and burden? The story is one of choices. Do the two try to free the poor souls locked up in the basement, or is it too risky in case the cannibals come home? Do they help the old, starving blind man (Robert Duvall), or will he be too much of a liability on their trip? What should be the punishment for a man, who, like the man and boy, is without any real means to live and who steals their shopping cart? When the world ends, can people afford common decency, or is the price just too high?

The boy certainly thinks there's room for morality. He constantly wants reassurance from his father that they are the "good guys," fighting against the bad guys but only when necessary. The dad, having seen so many terrible things, isn't so sure anymore.

These are the fundamental issues on McCarthy's mind in the book, and he gets them across by painting a vivid picture of the man and son's relationship. In focusing on the sensational, Hillcoat forces us to read between the lines to uncover them here. The man and the boy are merely vessels to take us around the barren world. They have their moments of hardship and small rewards (a can of soda (the boy's first), an overnight refuge in a bomb shelter full of food, and a bath and shave), but the movie never gets to the heart of their bond.

The novel is emotionally disconnected. The movie is, too, but unlike the book, it's not for lack of trying. The man and son have their tender moments, and the score telegraphs our response with soft, tender music. Meanwhile, it's a harsh industrial style when the cannibals appear, and it's too much without the emotional backbone to support it.

In spite of its flaws, this is a valiant effort from Hillcoat to adapt a tough-to-adapt book. The problem with The Road is that it is so intent on finding the shortest route to the essence of the book that it never discovers its own soul.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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