Having not read Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel, some may argue that this will leave me ill-prepared to tackle the at times troubled screen adaptation of what many see as one of the best novels of the decade.
Personally, I have never set much stock by how faithful films are to their source material: Stanley Kubrick butchered Stephen King’s The Shining; the result being one of the greatest horror films in living memory. More recently, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings proved quite a radical contrast to many aspects of Tolkien’s masterpiece. By contrast, those that have stuck too rigidly to the source material have often suffered, one example being Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, which whilst being stylish in the extreme, was beguiling and often incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the source material.
Whether or not John Hillcoat’s take on the Pullitzer Prize-winning novel is afflicted by the same malady is uncertain, at least to me. All the literary accolades in the world count for nothing if the film adaptation doesn’t bear up in its own right. Luckily, The Road’s depiction of an unnamed Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) attempting to eke out an existence in one of the most unforgiving and desolate of apocalyptic landscapes somehow still replendescent with signs of a race-once-mighty-gone-to-seed, is just that: this is the story. The main stumbling point here is that unless you’re a die-hard fan of the novel (and indeed, many are), this is very unlikely to be enough to sustain your attention throughout the film.
The Road’s biggest fault must surely be an inherent one: nothing much happens. And as it is such a harrowing and unrelenting experience, there is very little to alleviate the sense of despondency that runs as an undercurrent throughout what is essentially horror after horror; every frame is yet another symptom of mankind’s spectacular fall from grace. The result of this is a miserable viewing experience that is rendered difficult to appreciate, and even harder to enjoy.
Making this experience even worse is that we are actively discouraged from thinking. The reason for mankind’s fall from grace is never given. We can only watch as the human race descends into a cannibalistic, nomadic existence, in full knowledge that nothing can be done.
It therefore seems fitting that, in a world devoid of life, it is the two leads that provide the only real reason for this story to take place. Mortensen is excellent as always, utterly convincing as the Man, increasingly incapacitated by the strains of an unspecified disease, haunted by the abandonment of his wife (Charlize Theron), and driven only by the need to protect his Boy (newcomer Smit-McPhee is a revelation) and equip him for the quickly-approaching day when he will no longer be around.
Maybe it’s unfair on a director who has shown extreme bravery in tackling a project of such a scale that others would have balked at – but the fact remains that The Road is a difficult and harrowing visual experience. And not always in a good way.