In 2006, an incalculable number of retroussé-nosed snobs — most possessing little understanding or appreciation of speculative fiction — were justly charmed by Cormac McCarthy’s YA novel, The Road. It was a common weakness for such ostensibly erudite essayists as James Wood to not comprehend that McCarthy, like nearly every other speculative fiction author, was extrapolating his own values of fatherhood and manhood onto his fantastical canvas. Functional illiterates, without even an elementary knowledge of the exciting New Weird and steampunk movements then in full bloom, raved that The Road was “unlike any book you’ve read in a long time,” and that sentiment was certainly true if your grasp of speculative fiction extended no further than a Ray Bradbury story read under duress in a high school haze. But McCarthy’s novel — simple yet effective in its execution — went on to earn the Pulitzer Prize and was even selected by the middlebrow television queen, who proudly gushed to McCarthy that he looked just like he did on the back of the cover.
I am happy to report that The Road, in its cinematic version, lives up to this wanton accessibility. It lacks the apocalyptic punch of 1984’s Threads or 1982’s The Day After, and is far from bleak and depressing in its approach. But a liberal parent may very well argue that this family-centric film is fun for the whole family. I couldn’t help but wonder at times whether Viggo would coo, “Good night, John Boy,” under the acid rain of family values. The film does possess a streak of humanity comparable, at times, to 1983’s Testament, particularly since it is securely anchored by Viggo Mortensen, who conceals an effective bundle of husks, rasps, and laconic remnants within his spindly, half-starved frame. (He even delivers McCarthy’s contractions without apostrophes. This is a dedicated lead actor.) Joe Penhall’s adaptation is relatively faithful to the book, reproducing much of the narrative moments and the dialogue (although on film, the mind’s eye begins to see the question marks forming around lines, somewhat sullying McCarthy’s intent). There’s also gruff narration from Mortensen reading much of McCarthy’s prose, which I’m not sure was needed. Flashback moments involving Charlize Theron as the mother come perilously close to needless audience spoonfeeding.
But then McCarthy’s book was, in its own way, altogether too geared for mass consumption. One moment from the book, bearing the telltale indicator of a corporation wheeling over a rusty shopping cart of money, has been lovingly reproduced on screen. But director John Hillcoat and Penhall shouldn’t be held entirely accountable. They have indeed been true to the book, rendering every line of the following exchange:
He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca-Cola.
What is it, Papa?
It’s a treat. For you.
What is it?
Here. Sit down.
He slipped the boy’s knapsack straps loose and set the pack on the floor behind him and he put his thumbnail under the aluminum lip on the top of the can and opened it. He leaned his nose to the slight fizz coming from the can and then handed it to the boy. Go ahead, he said.
The boy took the can. It’s bubbly, he said.
He looked at his father and then tilted the can and drank. He sat there thinking about it. It’s really good, he said.
Yes. It is.
You have some, Papa.
I want you to drink it.
You have some.
He took the can and sipped it and handed it back. You drink it, he said. Let’s just sit here.
The stuff of literature! A book and a smile! And a film and a smile.
On the big screen, the thinking audience member, troubled not only by this product placement coming at the expense of verisimilitude, notes that warm and unrefrigerated Coca-Cola nestled for so long would surely have gone flat. (Indeed, the subject was argued about on Metafilter.)
The apocalypse’s visual elements involve tilted telephone poles, burned out office parks, skeletal remains, bituminious detritus, and frequent flickers of past civilization (paintings within a gutted out church, portraits in houses) cannily mirroring the father’s desire to “carry on the soul” and stay “one of the good guys” in a landscape populated mostly by cannibals. Alas, the sordid cannibalism doesn’t include the book’s infamous roasted baby, which China Mieville rightly called “a little bit camp.” We do see bloody bathtubs and sinks, a basement populated by living human meat, and chops and screams in the distance. But Delicatessen and Eating Raoul this ain’t. This grisly stuff should jolt or horrify, as it does on the page. But the film’s cannibals are more or less actors daubed up with grease who wear trucker’s caps. The intent is to depict humanity debased by desperate impulses, but it comes off like a cheap shot at red staters.
Still, some of the film’s pulled punches are redeemed by the solid performances (Kodi Smit-McPhee is good as The Boy) and a sound mix that knows the value of silence and knows when to intrude with creepy creaks. Robert Duvall’s presence as the old man is quite welcome and possibly more of a humanizing influence than the character’s appearance in the book. And while David Edelstein has pooh-poohed the film’s seeming “monotonous” quality, I must commend the film for the same reason. (Then again, it’s doubtful that Edelstein paid much attention. He claims that “having Mom lurch off is quite an evolutionary statement,” but failed to note Molly Parker’s presence at the end.) This is a film about process. Surviving in a wasteland when there’s no real reason to survive — other than the nebulous idea of “going south” — is one of the film’s (and the duo’s) reasons for being. It also helps that the father is, as the flashbacks and the incident with the thief reveal, hardly a flawless and glowing patriarch, and that his mistakes don’t necessarily coincide with the conditions.
Make no mistake: This is a feel-good apocalypse movie. And while the film is more entertainment than art, it’s just loose enough to provide any number of comparisons to the present economic shitstorm. Because of this, I suspect it may perform quite well at the box office.
© 2009, Edward Champion. All rights reserved.