I’ve posted before about my favourite novel; Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic The Road. I was aware that John Hillcoat was directing a film version a full 18 months ago; the anticipation has been both amazing and terrible. The repeated delays were worrying; were the studio bosses trying to soften the brutal bleakness of the source material?
Last night I finally saw the film, and while it’s not my favourite film of all time, I never thought it could be: I hold the novel in such high regard. It’s a brilliant, beautiful piece of work, as it overcomes all of my concerns about how the book might have been adapted…
SPOILER ALERT. THE REST OF THIS POST CONTAINS SIGNIFICANT PLOT DETAILS …
The shattered landscapes are astonishing, many filmed around the Mount St Helens area of Washington State. Perhaps the most desolate moment when I read the novel was when the man and his son finally arrive at the coast. This symbol of hope, of potential life has been hanging over the characters since the start of the novel, and in a crushing paragraph McCarthy strips that away. Hillcoat’s revelation of the beach is equally desolate; the sky is leaden, filled with fog and relentless rain. The beach is grey, cold, strewn with debris. Shattered hulls of broken ships lurk in the shallows.
Kodi Smit-McPhee is fantastic as The Boy. In a role as harrowing as any child has had to perform, he’s onscreen in virtually every scene. His character goes through a journey like no other, and experiences terrors noone should have to. He’s silent for much of the film, reacting silently. We can only wonder at how he copes with the horror, but by the end he truly carries the fire for his father, acting as his moral compass and humanity. Viggo Mortensen is also wonderful as The Man, but I almost expected that of him. He delivers brilliantly, but Kodi Smit-McPhee is a revelation.
The soundtrack by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis is perfectly judged. It doesn’t manipulate the viewer, but instead reflects the imagery on screen. The ambient sound of creaking trees, torrents of rain and shivering winds is unsettling, and the silences are dark, allowing the viewer to listen only too clearly to our own internal fears and dread.
The meditative poetry of McCarthy’s prose could never be adequately portrayed onscreen. But the tone of the film is truthful to the source. Some sequences have added adrenalin, but the sense of threat is ever-present and the tension unremitting.
Charlize Theron’s role as The Wife has been extended from the sparse flashbacks of the novel, but not in an intrusive way. I thought this was pretty sensitively handled, and the additional reminders of what we have lost only add to the immediacy of the despair, and help us to marvel at the possibly misguided efforts of The Man to survive. More than once we see evidence of suicides, and more than once we wonder if that actually would be the best course of action. This is not your standard studio fare.
I saw The Road at a wonderful independent cinema, the Wotton-Under-Edge Electric Picture House. It’s a lovely set-up, with easy online booking, cheap snacks and drinks, and friendly, helpful staff who actually seem to like films. Its repertoire of films covers family fare and documentaries. It’s a wonderful antidote to the corporate blandness of the multiplexes.