A poetic apocalypse

The Road evokes the images and the characters of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, but lacks the same core of emotional feeling.

Viggo Mortensen

The Road

Three and a half stars

Rated R (for some violence, disturbing images and language).

The Road evokes the images and the characters of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, but lacks the same core of emotional feeling.

I am not sure this is any fault of the filmmakers. The novel itself would not be successful if it were limited to its characters and images.

Its effect comes above all through McCarthy’s prose. It is the same with all of McCarthy’s work, but especially this one, because his dialogue is so restrained, less baroque than usual.

The story is straightforward enough: America has been devastated. Habitations have been destroyed or abandoned, vegetation is dying, crops have failed, the infrastructure of civilization has disappeared. It has happened in such recent memory that even The Boy, so young, was born into a healthy world. No reason is given for this destruction, perhaps because no reason would be adequate. McCarthy evokes the general apprehension of post-9/11. The Boy and The Man make their way toward the sea, perhaps for no better reason than that the sea has always been the direction of hope in this country.

The surviving population has been reduced to savage survivalists, making slaves of the weaker, possibly using them as food. We’ve always done that, employing beef cattle, for example, to do the grazing on acres of pasture so we can consume the concentrated calories of their labour. In a land where food is scarce, wanderers seek out canned goods and fear their own bodies perform this work for the cannibals.

Although we read of those who stockpile guns and ammunition for an apocalypse, weapons stores on the Road have grown low. The Man has a gun with two remaining bullets. He is a wary traveller, suspecting everyone he sees. He and The Boy have a few possessions in a grocery cart. He encourages his son to keep walking, but holds out little hope for the end of their journey.

I am not sure the characters could be played better, or differently. Viggo Mortensen plays The Man as dogged and stubborn, determined to protect his boy. Kodi Smit-McPhee is convincing as a child stunned by destruction, depending on his father in a world where it must be clear to him that any man can die in an instant. The movie resists any tendency toward making the child cute, or the two of them heartwarming.

Flashback scenes star Charlize Theron as the wife and mother of the two in earlier, sunnier days. They show the marriage as failing and these memories haunt The Man. I’m not sure what relevance this subplot has to the film as a whole; a marriage happy or sad — isn’t it much the same in this new world? It has a lot of relevance to The Man and The Boy. In times of utter devastation, memories are all we have to cling to.

The external events of the novel been boldly solved, and this is an awesome production. But McCarthy’s prose has the uncanny ability to convey more than dialogue and incident. It’s as dense as poetry. It is more spare in The Road than in a more ornate work like Suttree; in The Road, it is evocative in the way Samuel Beckett is. If it were not, The Road might be just another film of sic-fi apocalypse.

It’s all too easy to imagine how this material could be vulgarized into the 2007 version of I Am Legend.

How could the director and writer, John Hillcoat and Joe Penhall, have summoned the strength of McCarthy’s writing? Could they have used more stylized visuals instead of relentless realism? A grainy black-and-white look to suggest severely limited resources? I have no idea. Perhaps McCarthy, like Faulkner, is all but unfilmable. The one great film of his work is the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, but it began with an extraordinary character and surrounded him with others. The Road is not fertile soil, but provides a world with the life draining from it.

Perhaps it is significant that Hillcoat’s next film would be based on The Road. Something in McCarthy’s work draws him to it, and you must be a brave director to let that happen.

Writing this, I realize few of the audience members can be expected to have read The Road, even though it was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. Fewer still will have read his other work. I’ve been saying for years that a film critic must review the film before him, and not how “faithful” the film is to the book — as if we’re married to the book, and screen adaptation is adultery.

I realize my own fault is in being so very familiar with Cormac McCarthy. That may affect my ability to view the film afresh. When I know a novel is being filmed, I make it a point to not read the book. Yet I am grateful for having read McCarthy’s.

Roger Ebert is a syndicated Chicago Sun-Times movie critic.

McCarthy’s greatest novels are Suttree and Blood Meridian. The second, set in the Old West, is about a fearsome, bald, skeletal man named Judge Holden, who is implacable in his desire to inflict suffering and death. It is being prepared by Todd Field (In the Bedroom). The judge has not been cast; I see him as Tom Noonan — tall, grave, soft-spoken, almost sympathizing with you about your fate. Certainly not as a major star. As for a film based on Suttree, the director of On the Road, John Hillcoat, made a film in 2005 named The Proposition, and I wrote in my review:

“Have you read Blood Meridian, the novel by Cormac McCarthy? This movie comes close to realizing the vision of that dread and despairing story. The critic Harold Bloom believes no other living American novelist has written a book as strong and compares it with Faulkner and Melville, but confesses his first two attempts to read it failed, ‘because I flinched from the overwhelming carnage.’

“That book features a character known as the Judge, a tall, bald, remorseless bounty hunter who essentially wants to kill anyone he can, until he dies. His dialogue is peculiar, the speech of an educated man. The Proposition has such a character in an outlaw named Arthur Burns, who is much given to poetic quotations. He is played by Danny Huston in a performance of remarkable focus and savagery.”

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