Brandon's Word: John Hillcoat's The Road is a Harrowing Triumph
by Brandon Lee Tenney
November 24, 2009
I was so afraid to walk into the theatre to see The Road; I was afraid John Hillcoat's and Joe Penhall's adaptation of one of my favorite books would fall short of Cormac McCarthy's sublime, unflinching novel. I was afraid this big-screen version would tarnish the subtle landscape, the sparse construction, the hope and hopelessness that exists in such a perfect balance within the novel. But it didn't. It doesn't. The Road enhances its forebear. The film uses the novel as scaffolding, support around which to construct something admirably similar, but wholly unique. They're different mediums, books and movies, and should thusly be treated differently. Hillcoat and Penhall know that. It's obvious.
Like all great adaptations, The Road isn't afraid to venture from the novel when necessary, but is distinctly able to retain a reverence for the source material. The Road is a spectacular adaptation. It's brave and beautiful, but bleak. It's rough, without doubt. But it's so, so very worth the tear-streaked cheeks.
The Road had me welling with those tears within five minutes. The opening narration, which may end up being representative of my favorite piece of screenwriting this year, creates the film's atmosphere and molds its distinct tone with haste and control immediately. It's gripping and heartbreaking and exemplary of what's to come over the next two hours. And what's to come is a toilsome experience. The film rarely ventures outside the interactions and relationship between Man and Boy, the father and the son, played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, respectively. The audience is charged with following Mortensen and Smit-McPhee as they journey together amid a scorched, post-apocalyptic landscape. Finding food, water, and sleep are of the utmost importance. Steering clear of the cannibalistic droves is paramount.
While, in short, the above is what the film is tangibly about, the trappings of the plot, The Road, more than anything, is a film about the intangible. It's a meditation on desperation and hopelessness, strength and fatherhood, innocence and control in the face of the uncontrollable. For that reason alone, the film demands more from its audience. It requires you to give as much of yourself, as much of your experiences, your emotions, your anecdotes, as you receive from the film itself. The film needs your emotions to succeed. Thankfully, Penhall's script captures these universal intangibles so deftly that each emotional beat is akin to a hammer's strike atop an anvil. Crisp, resonant, and with echo.
Throughout the film, it's as if that anvil is set unrelentingly atop the audience's chest. I found myself cowering, sinking into my seat more often than I have all year at the movies. The tension created is so thick that, at times, it's almost too much. It's exhausting because you're never able to feel safe. You're never given a chance to breathe easy, not for a second. This is all a credit to Hillcoat's minimalistic, measured direction. It's just enough to capture what's happening without distraction, without indulgence. And when an actor like Viggo Mortensen is in front of the camera, it's best to just let the camera run and let him be. Mortensen gives a brilliant, genius performance. His character's every breath is not just his own, but a breath for his son, a breath for hope, and Mortensen conveys that with harrowing accuracy. Both Hillcoat and Mortensen are able to pull a pretty good performance from twelve-year-old Smit-McPhee. It's an insane undertaking for a child to be charged with releasing, absorbing, and internalizing such complexity. But he's able to do just that, for the most part.
If you've seen the film's trailer, you've probably noticed that Charlize Theron is in the film. This is one of the larger additions to the film that the novel only briefly touches on. While Theron gives a great performance, I must again commend Penhall's decision to enlarge her role in the story. The only break we get from the father and son's tumultuous journey is when Mortensen dreams, thinks about, or otherwise flashes back to recall a memory of his wife. We're able to see him as a husband then and compare, contrast, and feel what he's lost, which informs his present character--why he's so afraid to lose again. A couple of these flashbacks are absolutely devastating. More so because Mortensen is, in them, playing a character who is still clinging to his humanity with all he's made of instead of just clinging to survival as an instinct machine.
Though the filmmaking is sparse and calculated, it is not without its visual allowances. Two such scenes, one in flashback, one not, are to be forever chiseled into my brain. Without spoiling too much, when the father and son come across a locked cellar they believe to be housing food, it's one of the most gruesome, shocking, and emotionally overwhelming scenes I've witnessed on screen. And when, in flashback, the father says goodbye to his wife as she is swallowed by the ink of night as flecks of grey ash float in the air… It's just maddening.
The whole film is a rumination on just what it is to be human and to survive such devastation with one's humanity intact. The Road is a film that relies on its counterpoints and contrasts to reflect its ultimate purpose. The contrast of the father's hopelessness and base animalistic will to survive and protect his young with the boy's childhood innocence, his very human sense of compassion and hope is the film's most prominent opposition. While at times the boy's innocence and easy trust border on annoyingly frustrating, those glimmers of idealistic humanity are so few and far between, and such a relief when they do appear, that I was glad to have them. This trust/mistrust, naiveté/steely knowledge contrast is never more present than when the father and son come across a blind man on the road, played stunningly by Robert Duvall (who should be nominated for Best Supporting Actor). And even further, that scene stands in contrast to a later scene when the boy's bolstered sense of trust is undermined and he's shown just how horrible humans can be when their backs are pressed firmly against a wall without any hope of escape.
The film is populated with these survivalists. They're not bad people, they're merely doing what they must to survive, and some of them are willing to lose more of their humanity to do just that. Which brings me to the cannibals. Of all the trailers this year, The Road's is probably the worst. Not because of its construction, but because it's the worst possible representation of the finished product. There are no cliché newscasters explaining that this, here and now, is the end of days. There's certainly not as much action as the trailer lets on. And the film, as I hope you've gathered by now, is far more subtle and introspective than the scream-filled, gun-wielding, cannibal-filled horror film that the trailer positions The Road to be. It's no wonder why such a trailer was cut; The Road is a tough sell. In this review, I'm struggling to get across just how much the film affected me. But that doesn't excuse the fact that the trailer is an unabashed bait and switch. So, of the cannibals, they're certainly a presence in the film. But they're not the only threat; they're not the largest threat, either. And they're used to great success, with subtext and stakes greater than just the threat of seeing the father and son being eaten alive.
The Road is as good an adaptation of the novel as I could have imagined. It's true, thematically, tonally, and story-wise, to its source material, but it bravely winds through areas the novel didn't have to, but the film must. I haven't cried more often or more genuinely in a theatre… possibly ever. Though, again, this is not a film for the faint of heart or soul. It's at times brutal. It's shocking and filled with an encompassing desperation and unrelenting tension that can be uncomfortable. But any film that can make its audience feel so much, so deeply, any film that is able to explore such intangibles, such love, such humanity so honestly is something to behold with respect and admiration.
And I do admire The Road. For retaining such a truthfulness, more than anything. But also for being able to leave the audience with a sense of hope at the end, however small it is. As the credits rolled and I watched the text scroll by through squinted eyes, heavy with tears, the sounds of wind through trees, of a bird (for the credits are devoid of music in their first half), my first thoughts raced to the love I have for my father, for my family. I can't think of a better film to see with one's family this Thanksgiving. The Road is a thing of beauty. It's profound. It's a revelation. It's a triumph.