Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Road

There's a lot to admire in director John Hillcoat's film version of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalypse novel The Road. Two unnamed and unashamedly emblematic figures, father and son, trudge southwards through ruined cities and ashy landscapes where after some undefined but global catastrophe every last thing is dead save for a few human survivors. Hillcoat, production designer Chris Kennedy and Director of Photography Javier Aguirresarobe have conjured a convincingly bleak and monochromatic mis-en-scene that favours the use of real locations ravaged by natural and manmade traumas rather than CGI. Vigo Mortensen is suitably grim and determined as a father oscillating between extremes of love and harrowing dread, widowed by a wife who committed suicide because she believed living was worse than death, and pledged to protecting his young son even if it means killing him. Kodi Smit-McPhee projects a frail and innocent goodness, touchingly trusting and generous, all but overwhelmed by a terrifying world racked by earthquakes and fire storms, and haunted by desperate thieves and gangs of cannibals. Flashbacks to scenes with the man's wife (Charlize Theron) underscore the desperation and near hopelessness of his plight.

Yet the film doesn't quite gel. McCarthy's novel braids the man's Robinson Crusoe-like ingenuity with the bond between father and son whose survival is the survival of hope in a world otherwise bereft. The novel's spare, precise prose is predicated on an intimate knowledge of the workings of the world that informs every page; its deceptively simple story of survival is a grim game of consequences. Early on, the man and boy are almost caught by a gang of roving cannibals and must flee, losing almost all they possess. They forge on, starving and desperate, until the man takes a near fatal risk by breaking into a house which turns out to be the lair of another cannibal gang that keeps a larder of living victims in a cellar. And so on, and so on. But the film, although a reverent interpretation, is more like a series of formal tableaux than a coherent narrative -- stark and beautifully rendered tableaux to be sure, but lacking continuity. The unending search for food and shelter that forms one of the novel's central threads is all but lost - Hillcote relies instead on an intermittent voiceover and a plangent but irritatingly overplayed score to underscore their predicament - and there's little tension or genuine sense of peril in the action scenes. Instead, the focus is kept on the relationship between father and son, which while beautifully and often tenderly depicted, is touched a little too often by naked sentiment. It's by no means a bad film, and there's considerable power in its devastating and unflinchingly bleak portrayal of a world utterly plundered and ruined - a world our own world may contain in embryo - and in the hopefully simplicity of its last image. But it's slighter and less involving than it wants to be, perhaps because - as too often with films like this - it pays so much respectful attention to its prize-winning, critically-acclaimed source that it fails to deliver the kind of vigour and originality that infused another parable of harsh Old Testament morality: Hillcoat's previous film, The Proposition.


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