Bleak seldom has looked bleaker than in The Road, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2006, Pulitzer Prize winning novel. A serious post-apocalyptic meditation, the big-screen version of The Road has everything it needs, save for McCarthy's prose, and its absence proves a liability.
No Country For Old Men notwithstanding, McCarthy's novels aren't exactly a screenwriter's dream. To deprive a McCarthy novel of its prose stands as a misguided form of reductionism and helps to prove a shopworn adage: Fine novels don't necessarily translate into equally fine movies.
I guess director John Hillcoat deserves credit for trying, but sans the disturbing grandeur of McCarthy's voice, Hillcoat's carefully conceived and drastically somber adaptation tends to shroud itself in the tedium of dead-end gloom.
The movie's ravished landscapes gradually drain the spirit, which I suppose is appropriate, but the novel had a poetic sense of loss that brought us face-to-face with extinction -- not just of ourselves but of everything we take for granted. The movie, though grimly accomplished, can't scale those kind of heights or perhaps I should say, it can't plumb the horrible depths of life -- all life -- on the precipice.
The Road focuses on the relationship between a father and his young son, a relationship honed by the sorrow of a world bereft of all but the smallest hopes: finding something edible, for example.
As is the case with the novel, a character called The Man (Viggo Mortensen) tries his to protect his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In flashbacks, we learn that The Woman (Charlize Theron) -- the boy's mother -- refused to face an intolerable future and committed suicide. This left The Man and his son to wander the ruined landscape, searching for food and trying to avoid the Bad Guys, survivors who have resorted to murder and cannibalism.
Though the movie never explains the cataclysm that befell the world, it hardly matters. In this rubble of ruined dreams and scattered ash, the surviving residue of humanity has turned brutal.
If you scan the movie's credits, you'll note that the presence of a variety of actors, but only two -- other than Mortensen and Smit-McPhee -- receive any real showcase. Michael Kenneth Williams plays a wanderer who attempts to steal from The Man and his son, who push their belongings around in a shopping cart. Robert Duvall appears as The Old Man, a survivor who arouses the boy's sympathy.
Joe Penhall's script eventually reveals an essential conflict. The Boy hasn't lost the impulses that lead toward decency, compassion and trust: The Man regards such virtues as stumbling blocks on the littered road to survival. Additional tension arises as The Man contemplates whether he'll have the will to kill his son should they confront an inescapable threat.
Although The Road ends on a slightly hopeful note, the movie tends to leave you bobbing on gray seas of depression. Perhaps it has been weighed down by all the post-apocalyptic debris. To the extent that the movie works, credit must be given to Javier Aguirresarobe's unforgiving cinematography and to Mortensen's performance, all dirt and emaciation.
Hillcoat remains faithful to the novel, so much so that movie can be viewed as act of respect for McCarthy. Keep in mind, though, that the biggest event in the novel may not have been the apocalypse, but McCarthy's language. Hillcoat has found no real equivalent for that. I'm not sure anyone could.