The finest scene in the road comes straight from one of the finest scenes in Cormac McCarthy’s novel on which it is based. The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is scribbling in a notebook what he sees in front of him; a desolate brick building, across from his father’s deserted childhood house, in a landscape charred and in a permanent state of November like everywhere else after the Apocalypse. He cannot put every object with its word, nor can he put form to replications of objects; so his drawing is a mess of green black and gray scribbles. He sets the paper down, knowing he is trying out a hopeless craft; then he sees an object in the window of the brick building. He runs after it, calling out. The figure of a boy ducks behind the building. The Boy calls to him that he shouldn’t be afraid, but the other boy has vanished. The Boy’s father (Viggo Mortensen) is running out from the house to seize his son and scold him for what he is doing even as he holds him as a loving father would.
The Road, directed by John Hillcoat, who made the fiery, McCarthy-esque western The Proposition in 2005, is undyingly faithful to its source material. Three of McCarthy’s books have become movies by now and it is not hard to see why, even if his books are not so much cinematic as post-cinematic. The Road could have just as easily become a videogame, in which the player is The Boy or The Man, travelling down an ongoing road after humanity has died out in some nameless catastrophe, sometimes fighting cannibals, other times exchanging food and caged pleasantries with destitute survivors, and still have retained the full story. But because the story takes the form of the most natural cinematic narrative—that of physical travel-- means filmmakers want a piece of this kind of story. McCarthy’s books are probably considered too highbrow for videogames, anyway; they are admired for their Faulknerian sentences, for the way the dialogue comes without quotations, as if it is part of the landscape, and the for the way they blend stream of consciousness with intense narrative description in ways that are sometimes indistinguishable. But these are all stylistic qualities that do not translate to cinema easily. What translates automatically is the stories; about maniac serial killers on western rampages, or troubled youths on Bildungrosmans across the desert, or here, about a man and his son trying to survive in the aftermath of the Apocalypse. But Hillcoat is not quite brave enough to try and approximate McCarthy’s style, with the exception of the one scene with the Boy drawing, which just about gets it.
And so, the problem with The Road is the same problem the Coen Brothers had with their McCarthy adaptation, No Country for Old Men; it is a perfectly solid film without enough dark exuberance. Although there are an unnecessary amount of scenes with Charlize Theron (playing Mortensen’s deceased wife, who makes a hard decision when the end is nigh and cannibalism starts running amok), the other scenes are neither too long nor too short, and what happens to both protagonists, literally and emotionally, is always crystal clear. There is a fine turn by Robert Duvall as a nearly blind ninety-year old man and a strangely appropriate appearance by Guy Pearce (who starred in The Proposition). The other bones to pick with the film are mainly the same bones one could pick with the book. (The people in this story are no strangers to seeing bones being picked, for sure). But Hillcoat has resorted to wrapping a grayish, sentimental, film-score laden style around what was a hypnotic and, again, darkly exuberant piece of work in prose. If there is a director out there who could bring out the dark exuberance in a story, the only one to come to mind is the Hungarian mammoth Bela Tarr. But try getting him to come over here, and film this story in black and white (the only realistic interpretation?) For now, directors are too concentrated on filming McCarthy’s plots; they are scared of his sentences.