If you saw director John Hillcoat’s last film The Proposition, then you know that he is perhaps the only man suited to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. The world as we know it has been utterly destroyed: Society no longer functions and every bit of infrastructure is gone. A father and son struggle to survive as they make their way across the country armed with only a pistol and a shopping cart full of supplies. The titular road they travel is rife with roving gangs, cannibals and other survivors. That is the film’s premise. However, McCarthy’s novel, like the film is less about the story and more about setting a mood and tone. Hillcoat totally captures the bleak and depressing tone of the novel and strikes all the notes he needs to hit. In fact, The Road is easily the most faithful adaptation of a novel I’ve ever seen. The film is a grim experience, one that will stick with you. I don’t know how much of my enjoyment of the film can be attributed to my love of the novel — if you can call a 300 page window into a nightmarish existence enjoyable. Both the film and the book are great, but they are each truly unpleasant experiences. Spoilers to follow.
The Road is not nearly as graphic as the book was, which described horrific acts of cannibalism and savagery in great detail. Make no mistake though, the film definitely has some very disturbing moments. If you’ve read the book then you know what to expect; you won’t see babies roasting on spits, but almost everything else makes the cut. With the exception of a few flashbacks with the Wife, played by Charlize Theron, every scene is right out of the novel. The addition of the Wife character doesn’t detract from the film, her presence feels very natural. She’s not in it much, but she’s a beacon of light in an otherwise grey and black world.
The entire film rests upon the believability of the father-son relationship. Viggo Mortensen turns in easily one of the best performances of his career; I bought it every step of the way and I’m normally not a big fan of his. It’s absolutely heart-wrenching what his character goes through, you will be hard pressed not to empathize with him. Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays the boy, holds his own against Mortensen in every scene. Most of the scenes in the film are just quiet moments between the Man and the Boy, something the trailer for the film really doesn’t allude to. There are some incredibly tough scenes in which the Man teaches his son how to shoot himself if it looks like they are going to be caught by cannibals. It’s really heavy stuff and anyone who is a parent will likely be disturbed by it.
The film also features some great actors in very small parts: Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker and Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire) all make brief but memorable appearances. Duvall is particularly good and almost unrecognizable as the Old Man.
I’ve spent so much of this review comparing the film to the novel, but they really feel like companion pieces. You need not have read McCarthy’s novel to get something out of Hillcoat’s film. Reading the novel is an exercise in empathy, as a parent or a child you cannot help putting yourself in the shoes of the Man or the Boy. As you read on, you begin to wonder what you would do if you were put in the same situation, if you could do the same thing. You imagine how far you would go to protect someone you love. Could you survive in that world? Would you even want to? Would you want your child to live in that world? What made the film memorable is that it raises the same questions. It’s a similar experience, with Mortensen and Smit-McPhee acting as the viewers surrogates in a given situation. However, to read about something and imagine what your own decisions would be is very different from seeing it play out on film and watching someone have to make those decisions.
Having read the book, I felt that I was returning to something familiar, but at the same time it was something I did not want to revisit. The Road is a journey worth taking once. If you have read the book, I will tell you that while The Road is an excellent film on its own merits, you have already been there. If you haven’t read the book, how you make that trip is up to you.
The Road is a profoundly disturbing film and yet at the same time also strangely inspiring. It is a deftly authentic adaptation of an important work, featuring some truly amazing performances. You may not like what you see, in fact you may hate it for what it shows you. For all the hardship this film puts its characters through, there is the faintest glimmer of hope at the end. It’s not much, but it’s there. Without it the film would be an exercise in torture, for the characters as well as the audience.