The Road Often Taken

Over the years these grisly post-apocalyptic scenarios have become a dime a dozen in film and literature.  When award-winning author Cormac McCarthy decided to put his spin on the idea with his novel The Road, people took notice.  By focusing on a father-son relationship instead of the usual action and horror that lends itself so well to post-apocalyptic tales, McCarthy received mountains of praise for his stark, horrific fable.  Now, just in time for the holiday film season — and honestly, what screams holidays with the family more than a cannibal holocaust? — director John Hillcoat (previously responsible for the grim Aussie western, The Proposition) delivers his adaptation of McCarthy’s celebrated novel to the big screen.The good news is McCarthy’s grim, ash-covered, earthquake-riddled, tree-toppling, cannibal-ridden, sparse nightmare of words is translated to Hillcoat’s visual world fully in tact.  The set designers, special effects folks and cinematographer deserve all the credit in the world for making this barren wasteland look both dire and magnificent in scope.  Also like the book, the film is essentially a two person show depicting the relationship between The Man (Viggo Mortensen, growling and whispering his way through another solid performance) and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee, fraught, sympathetic and believable).  They do expand a bit on the back-story involving The Man’s wife (and The Boy’s mother), where we learn that Viggo’s character was insanely smitten by Charlize Theron’s character because she was the type of gal that would lay in the grass instead of a perfectly good hammock.  Why she chooses to abandon her husband and little boy remains a mystery as does the cause of the apocalypse, which will frustrate some while entrance others.

For the most part, fans of the book should rejoice, but I always had my reservations, and this fastidiously faithful film adapts all of the source material’s faults along with the good stuff.  Like the novel, there can only be so many scenes of the father and son traipsing across this hell-hole from one place to the next in search of food before the narrative becomes monotonous.  The story takes forever to get where it’s going, and once it does, the final act seems far too convenient and pat.  I won’t expand more on that here for fear of spoiling the film for those who haven’t read the book, but it is an ending that raises more questions than answers, although it is guised in a veil of hope.

Ultimately, John Hillcoat’s The Road is a reverent adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, well acted, well directed, and full of compelling imagery.  However, by overplaying its hand with regards to the central relationship between a father and son and remaining stubbornly vague about everything else, what was meant to be haunting and unforgettable is rendered easily forgotten with a shrug of the shoulders.  This is a road we’ve taken before, but I suppose I would rather take this one than to have to sit through another I Am Legend.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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7 comments on “The Road Often Taken

  1. DeeDee says:

    Hi! D.H.Schleicher,
    Wow, quite a review… D.H.Schleicher said,
    “Director John Hillcoat (previously responsible for the grim Aussie western, The Proposition”…starring actor Guy Pierce and which I enjoyed viewing.)

    Therefore, after reading your very “frank” review of The Road (Which of course is based on McCormac’s novel) I ‘am not quite sure that I will be looking forward to watching this film too, but once again we shall see!

    I must admit that “great minds” do think alike…check out what is featured over there on
    Kindle…(That is if Amazon have not removed the image.)
    Kindle

    D.H.Schleicher (caption read) said,”Hey, pop, you think Smokey the Bear is gonna be mad at us?” and …”honestly, what screams holidays with the family more than a cannibal holocaust?”
    LOL!

    DeeDee 😉

    DeeDee – if you enjoyed The Proposition, you will probably like this. Guy Pierce, modern film noir actor extraordinaire has a cameo. –DHS

  2. POSTSCIPT: Attention readers, I feel I may have been too quick to say, as I did in the last line of my review…that the film “is rendered easily forgotten with a shrug of the shoulders”.

    This has become one of those films that people love to talk and debate about on blogs…and I think that mostly stems from the impassioned feelings towards the book and McCarthy as a writer.

    Oddly, it is not so easy to forget and has become a film that I am questioning my feelings towards. In other words, I’ve ended up thinking more about my opinion towards the film than the actual film itself.

    For a wonderful follow-up…I highly recommend the discussion going on about this very thing…the idea that opinions and critiques can be debated and critiqued outside of the actual book/film they were originally critiquing!

    Check it out:

    http://bigother.com/2009/11/27/a-new-target/

    Fascinating stuff, this “talk” of THE ROAD!

  3. Sam Juliano says:

    Hey David! I saw THE ROAD on Wednesday night with the family and found it a collasal bore! I loved the Cormac McCarthy novel it was based on, but the film was basically a series of apocalyptic set pices with no psychological insight. It’s a bankrupt version of Samuel beckett. Robert Duvall was rather emabarassing too. There is so much more they could have done, but I’ll save my own views for an upcoming review. As it is you presented both sides most admirably here. I did see Linklater’s ME AND ORSON WELLES last night, and for me that’s the week’s big winner.

    Sam, wow, I have to admit, I am a bit surprised. I thought you and I might butt heads on this, but in the opposite direction. This might be the first time where I am decidely mixed, but you loathed the film–though loathe might be too strong a word? I look forward to your full review. –DHS

  4. worldsasmyth says:

    Hey Dave,

    Thanks much for your comment over on my blog. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I have not yet McCarthy’s novel, though it is most certainly on the reading list. The rage comes more from the inane nature of that popular film/franchise, and how I thought it had butted out a film with actual merit, but apparently, according to your review, that may not be the case. However, that will not deter me from giving the film a gander when it does release in Las Vegas, primarily for the stark visuals and high-caliber performances.

    Kudos,
    -Mick

    Mick, no, your rage over New Moon’s current dictatorship at the multiplexes is well founded…and The Road is of merit and deserves a wide release. I always tend to focus more on the negatives when I write a mixed review…but I would give The Road a solid 7 out of 10, and it is far more thought provoking than a thousand Twilights. –DHS

  5. John Greco says:

    David,

    Enjoyed the review, very nice. I read the book, actually listened to it on CD about a year ago (liked it) and have been looking forward to the film, which I know has been held back from release for quite a while. The reviews seem to be mixed, and I know it is not the type of film my wife will want to see, so unless I get a chance to see it on my own it will have to wait until a DVD release.

  6. ccyager says:

    Hi, David,

    Finally saw this movie. I loved the book and McCarthy’s use of muscular Anglo-Saxon words. I was a bit skeptical about an adaptation to film, but must admit, this movie kept my rapt attention to the end. Mortensen and the young boy who plays his son do a superb job, almost impossible job, really, when you consider they’re carrying the movie. I thought it much clearer why his wife left than in the book — she wanted control over her death and not wait for the cannibals to come. She also could not bear to see her husband and son killed by cannibals. As for the cause of the apocalypse — it didn’t bother me that it wasn’t spelled out. In fact, both I and my friend wondered also, along with the boy sitting on the beach, what was on the other side. Was only America destroyed or the rest of the planet? My friend, a scientist, decided that considering the weather patterns and earthquakes, it was more likely than not that the entire planet looked like that.

    I’m glad you posted a re-think. This movie has not haunted me the way the book did, but I thought it was extremely well done given the subject matter. We sat in a coffee shop for 2 hours afterward talking about it (among other things) and what it said about whether or not civilization was a part of human nature or must be learned. I think “The Lord of the Flies” also dealt with this idea.

    My 2 cents,
    Cinda

    Cinda, I recall that you liked the book very much so I am glad you also thought the film worthwhile. –DHS

  7. Jake Cole says:

    I had a hard time putting into words my opinion of The Road, because I left feeling so neutral. It’s odd: this is a film whose weight is almost totally distributed onto three people — Hillcoat, Mortensen and Smit-McPhee — all of whom are truly just right for their roles in front of and behind the camera. But where McCarthy’s novel was taut, visceral and tense even in its few desperately needed moments of relief, Penhall’s script moves through peaks and troughs instead of the smooth crescendo of the book. The movie can actually be dull where the book barely let you gasp for air, though I did like the extended bit with the old man (I didn’t recognize that was Robert Duvall until right before he left the movie) was more haunting and terrifying than the cellar full of…um, fresh food that just didn’t play right on-screen to me. Still, I enjoyed it enough to recommend it, even if it doesn’t really match the potential that Hillcoat brought or the material offered (to say nothing of the specter of No Country, one of McCarthy’s weakest turned into a modern masterpiece, hanging over the film’s head).

    Jake, I would have to say that after over a month’s “digestion” of the film I would have to be considered neutral as well. –DHS

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