Tuesday, 26 January 2010


Now Showing
Icon Film Distribution

Cormac McCarthy's The Road is one of the most acclaimed novels of this century, winning the Pulitzer Prize for literature and a legion of admirers. I've not read The Road, or any McCarthy for that matter (he also penned No Country For Old Men), so my disappointment with the film version doesn't stem from the 'the book is always better' school of thought.

But let me be clear: I do not dislike the film. I am impressed by director John Hillcoat's depiction of a post-apocalyptic America where a disaster (environmental? nuclear?) has left the world in a slow state of decay: all is grey, on the land and in the sky, and no animals remain. Not so slow to decline is man's civility, with murder and cannibalism the greatest threat to anyone unfortunate enough not to be part of a mob.

Striking out on their own is a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). They're headed for the coast and then south, perhaps to Mexico, where they hope things will be better. As they travel, the father imparts practical advice to his son so that, should he be left to fend for himself, he can. He also instructs him on how to use the gun he is carrying. It holds two bullets: put it in your mouth and pull the trigger, the boy is instructed.

McCarthy's book was inspired partly by his own relationship with his son: the author, in his 70s, has a son some 60 years his junior. McCarthy no doubt contemplates a world for his boy without him in it (and one that has conceivably been ravaged by either war or global warming). This father-son relationship drives the film, and Mortensen, bearded and emaciated, and Smit-McPhee, wide-eyed yet not so innocent, work beautifully together.

And yet here is my problem with the film, where my disappoint lies: I was not moved. While thankfully void of sentiment, The Road for me was not an emotional experience; there is no catharsis at film's end, and only the small prospect of hope. That may be in keeping with the book, and the characters' predicament, but I found it lacking. I was engaged but I did not connect. I even saw The Road twice, a couple of months apart, just to be sure that my first viewing hadn't been marred by outside forces - expectation, annoying audience members, fatigue from a very long day - but the experience was the same.

I was moved, however, in quite a different way by the idea that man, without social mores to guide or shackle him, should so readily turn to cannibalism. The fear of such a fate befalling the father and his son is palpable throughout the film. One scene, involving a house and a padlocked cellar, is the stuff of nightmares.

But I wouldn't tell people not to see the film. All films are better on the big screen and The Road is, in terms of post-apocalypse, beautifully shot. It is also finely acted, with cameos by Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce being pivotal and not distracting.

Those who have read McCarthy's novel will know better than I if it measures up, to the book and their own expectations. Hopefully the journey will prove far more rewarding for them.

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