Friday, October 23, 2009

"The Road" is a movie that presages future polar cities in year 2500

Capsule review: ‘The Road
October 22, Year 4009

PHOTO: Viggo Mortensen

Adapting a Cormac McCarthy novel for the big screen has never been easy. Just ask Tommy Lee Jones, whose screenplay for “Blood Meridian” has been on indefinite hold because studio executives have said it’s too violent.

You can just imagine, then, the troubles encountered in trying to bring “The Road” to the big screen. Too dark. Unrelentingly grim. A post-apocalyptic movie filled with one horror after another.

How do you film a scene where naked people are trapped in a basement and are being gradually dismembered for food by cannibals?

How do you show a cold world covered in gray ash, where no plants survive?

And how do you tell the story of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trying to make their way to the ocean, in the slim hope of some sort of redemption?

Australian director John Hillcoat tries mightily. And he largely succeeds with the help of a fine supporting performance from Robert Duvall, stunning art direction by Gershon Ginsburg and cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe.

DID YOU SEE "THE ROAD" YET? DISH in the comments below. Like it? Hate it? What?

By Devin Faraci Published Yesterday Reviews
When a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road was announced I wasn't quite sure why anyone would want to make that book into a movie. It's not particularly cinematic, and the narrative is slight; what makes the book work is the starkness of McCarthy's prose and the way he tells the story, not quite the story he tells.

After seeing the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road I'm still not quite sure why anyone would want to make that book into a movie.

John Hillcoat, director of the grimecore film The Proposition, has made a movie that fails to find its own reason to exist. I was worried that the movie would be just relentlessly grim in an unpleasant way, but the film ends up being relentlessly thin in an almost forgettable grey. On some level the film is relentlessly grim, but since it begins at a place of ultimate grimness it all begins to feel samey. Instead of wearing you down it kind of bores you.

Which isn't to say that the film is bad, as it's not. It's just not particularly good. It sort of just is. Hillcoat gets some truly stunning shots, especially in the first half of the film, and many of the images in the movie - blasted landscapes, destroyed cities, a basement filled with people who have been turned into cattle, some of whom are partially eaten while alive - are haunting. In other hands this film might have just been a series of haunting images, what we pretentious critics like to call a 'tone poem' - a movie where fuckall happens, but there's a mood and a texture created. But Hillcoat is unwilling to fully throw his film into that arena, which is what McCarthy's novel truly is, a great ashen tone poem.

The film occasionally seems to be ramping up to something. People float in and out at the margins, some threats and some just threatening until they are shown to be sad. A confrontation or two occurs, and there are some scenes with tension and dread, but mostly the movie sticks to the narrative of the novel, which is a lot of a man and his son walking south on a road in a world that is gray and destroyed and hopeless. And coughing while they go.

Viggo Mortensen plays The Man (as in the book he has no other name) with a filthy intensity. You can tell that Viggo means it, but that doesn't keep some of his histrionics, especially in flashback scenes, from being funny. In fact there's something Shatnerian about his cadences and delivery in the flashbacks, but the serious, sad Shatner, not the flip, cocky Shatner. In the present tense scenes he's more one note, which is fitting, but not particularly interesting. Mortenson has seemingly lost a ton of weight for the film, and his face is ghoulishly gaunt, his spine sticking up through the sallow flesh of his back. His beard is thick and tangled, and his hair is greasy and matted. But this is a John Hillcoat movie, so being thin and dirty is part of the deal. Is being naked? Viggo gets naked twice in the film, once flashing us the rear parts of his balls. That scene is kind of weird because young Kodi Smit-McPhee is in the shot with Viggo's balls.

Smit-McPhee plays The Boy. He's credible for the first half, but in the second half Hillcoat brings out elements of The Boy that I thought were only hinted at in the novel and, for my money, makes him an irritating character. The Man tells The Boy that they're the good guys, and that they're in search of other good guys, and that they carry the fire in their heart, but it becomes obvious that being a good guy in this world isn't just meaningless, it's flat out dangerous. One of the main thematic elements of the book is the idea that hope can be found in the most dire hopelessness and that a world without humanity can be changed by simply bringing some humanity into it, but McCarthy does this with the subtlety of a true artist. Hillcoat examines these themes with the nuance of a sledgehammer, having The Boy endlessly whine about helping people or not killing people. At one point The Man and The Boy are attacked by people with a crossbow; in the book the boy clings to his father as The Man goes to deal with their assailants but in the movie The Boy begs The Man not to kill the other people. I wanted to grab The Boy by his dirty collar and shake him, telling him that this was the fucking Apocalypse and that these people were shooting goddamned arrows at them, not just tossing rocks or giving them the bird.

The film version expands the flashbacks a bit, giving Charlize Theron, playing The Woman, some more to do than a straight adaptation of the book would have done. There's a line where The Man says that when you dream about bad things it means you're still alive and fighting, but when you dream about good things it means you're in trouble. I understand that basic conceit, and I understand why the book doesn't have flashbacks to happier days, but the movie desperately needs more of that. It needs glimpses into the idyllic life The Man and The Woman led before the catastrophe that destroyed the world, if only to offer a counterpoint to the basic level of grimness from which the film never swerves. You need to have highs to fully feel the lows. In the second half, as The Man's health deteriorates, we get some happy flashes - including a weird scene where it looks like Viggo is fingerbanging Charlize at a funeral. Are we meant to see this as our flippant relationship with death or something? - but they're too little, too late. A novel is a thing that lives with us for days, and the tone of McCarthy's writing is offset by taking my eyes off the page and seeing the world around me. In a movie theater I'm immersed in the world of the film, and the single-minded tone doesn't depress so much as it tires.

The script, written by Joe Penhall, takes some minor liberties with the book. Hillcoat's last film, The Proposition, was a notably violent film. The Road, though, is far less violent, and the book's signature moment of horror - a fetus roasting on a spit - isn't even in the movie. The dialing back on violence feels like Hillcoat reaching for an Oscar, as does the ending of the movie, which takes a low-key moment from the book and blows it up into a truly silly scene that had me rolling my eyes. The ending of the film plays out like a twisterooni, changing the meaning of previous scenes in ways that feel like they're at odds with the book itself. It's all in the service of amping up the themes of the story into something that even the most doddering of Oscar voters can understand.

I wish that Penhall and Hillcoat had taken more liberties with the book. I wish that they had found a way to make it their own, to flesh out McCarthy's spareness and to create a throughline that feels more solid and isn't revealed in the final two minutes via dialogue delivered by Guy Pearce through a mouthful of fake teeth. Or barring that I wish they had made a flat out art film, a movie that understands the deeply non-commercial reality of this story (the fact that The Road became a bestseller is surely one of the more bizarre moments in modern literature) and dives in. Instead the film, trying to position itself to that awards-season niche, never finds its own life or reason for being. Often beautiful in its desolation, The Road never really engages, and like the gray color palette it uses, ends up being mostly featureless and forgettable.

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