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Road, The (2009)

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 11/25/09 13:00:00

"An unfailingly faithful adaptation of the award-winning novel."
5 stars (Awesome)

After a yearlong delay, "The Road," the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s ("No Country for Old Men," "All the Pretty Horses," "Blood Meridian," "Sutree") 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning, post-apocalyptic novel, arrives in movie theaters, just in time for Oscar consideration (as the Weinstein Brothers intended). Directed by John Hillcoat ("The Proposition") and adapted by Joe Penhall, "The Road" is a remarkably faithful adaptation of McCarthy’s bleak, unsentimental, uncompromising novel. Shot by longtime cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (he has more than 80 credits to his name) to emphasize McCarthy’s stark, austere vision of a post-apocalyptic future, "The Road" isn’t likely to draw all but fans of McCarthy’s novel, see-everything cineastes, and members of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts, and Sciences (i.e., for Oscar consideration).

For those unfamiliar with McCarthy’s novel, The Road is set after an undefined ecological cataclysm has empted the world of almost all organic life. Animals, wild or domesticated, have become extinct. Humanity is at the precipice of extinction. Fires, earthquakes, grim, gray skies, and ash-rain. It’s a Hobbesian world where life is nasty, brutish, and short, where survivors live as dispossessed scavengers or as cannibal-hunters. Names have become unimportant. They’ve lost their utility and meaning. The characters aren’t defined by their pre-apocalyptic identities, but by their respective roles: the man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an old man (Robert Duvall) and thief (Michael K. Williams) the man and the boy encounter.

For the man and his son, the slimmest of hopes lies in going south where maybe the cataclysm hasn’t reached that far, maybe it has, but to give up hope is to give up purpose and, inevitably, die. The man’s wife (Charlize Theron) lost hope and committed suicide. Dreams offer painful reminders to the man of the pre-apocalyptic past or the post-apocalyptic present. On their journey south, the man and the boy face must overcome cold and hunger and other survivors, “good guys” and “bad guys” (as the man describes them), survivors who still follow basic rules of human decency and those who’ve succumbed to their baser instincts and have become cannibals. But in case they’re caught, the man carries a gun with one bullet (for his son).

McCarthy has obsessively returned to human nature, human nature under extreme forms of duress, as the subject for his work as a novelist. Morality, taxed under extreme duress, as well as randomness, God (in the Old Testament sense), but in The Road, part survival horror, part cautionary tale, and part character study, McCarthy explored an unfamiliar subject, the relationship between a father and his son. Inspired in part by his relationship with his son (McCarthy became a father at a relatively late age) and a bout of insomnia, where the idea for a father and son trudging through a barren, desolate landscape came to him, The Road became McCarthy’s most intimate, emotionally resonant novel (which in part explains its success commercially and critically).

Any adaptation of the The Road would have to navigate through McCarthy’s spare, elliptical storytelling, the emphasis on characters at their most elemental and least verbal, the nearly wordless journey to the coast and the South, and a bleak, brutal, unsentimental approach, all of which Hillcoat and his screenwriter, Joe Penhall, handle deftly, if at times too literally. Hillcoat stumbles by including the man’s voiceover narration, first as exposition (presumably for moviegoers unfamiliar with the novel) and, later, as insight into the man’s state of mind. Both are unnecessary. The visuals and the characters, through action and occasional dialogue, say everything we need to know about McCarthy’s dire post-apocalyptic world.

Hillcoat and Aguirresarobe captures McCarthy’s desolate, depopulated world perfectly (maybe too perfectly), limiting scenes of epic-scale devastation to only a few scattered shots (partly, presumably for marketing purposes). The wife, more prominent in the adaptation than in the novel, appears in several more scenes (but less than the trailer indicates), but her presence adds depth to the man’s struggle between going on and committing suicide. But it’s the central relationship between the man, a pitch-perfect Viggo Mortensen in an award-worthy performance, and his son, an impressive debut by Kodi Smit-McPhee, drives the narrative. Their affecting, poignant relationship, both particular (to this post- apocalyptic world) and universal (to any time or place), elevates "The Road" from every entry in the post- apocalyptic sub-genre.

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