Is it possible that the grim movie version of The Road isn't grim enough? 

Wanting the movie version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road to be even more bleak may sound like the ultimate in moviegoer masochism—thank you, sir, may I have another cannibal holocaust? And please, make the world look a little more like an ashtray? But the bleakness of McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel (itself a church picnic next to the heatstroke savagery of his Blood Meridian) is pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition. Reading the book is like feeling your way through nuclear winter: There's no relief, nor should there be—which allows the ending's chary sliver of hope to register as a sunrise. The movie version makes only a few seemingly minor compromises, but they're enough to make The Road merely depressing instead of cathartic.

Which isn't to say The Road is a desecration, or even the disaster heralded by its famously troubled production history. Shot in grimy monochrome by Javier Aguirresarobe (who saved up all his reds for New Moon), it emerges more as a high-minded, studiously downbeat genre movie—the morning after 2012's orgiastic greatest-hits-of-Armageddon bash. Left to wander, often wordlessly, along a rubble-strewn road to nowhere fraught with man-eating attackers and thieves, the figures known only as Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) eke out the hardest of hard-scrabble lives. Man tries to grow the child up fast and hard: This is no country for young boys. Boy carries the sputtering candle of human kindness, unable not to show concern for his fellow survivors—embodied most memorably by Robert Duvall as a ragged vagabond Lear.

The book was an exorcism of a father's worst fears—not just of protecting the child in his charge, but of extinguishing his child's wondrous, irretrievable innocence on the path to growing up. Perhaps the best that can be said for the two lead performances is that they resist coming off as self-conscious representatives of humankind. Mortensen in particular gives off a gaunt, vestigial decency that would have been even more affecting without the movie's flashbacks with Charlize Theron—an addition, like the narration and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' intrusive piano score, that jolts us out of the surrounding nightmare.

Granted, finding a celluloid equivalent for the wary desolation of McCarthy's prose would be a fool's errand, even if the Coen brothers made whip-taut noir of No Country for Old Men (McCarthy's pulpiest book by a mile). But director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) settles for making the book's incidents glumly literal. A trip to a charnel house filled with human livestock becomes a zombie-movie setpiece, not hellish extended proof of a world gone feral.

Yet Hillcoat brings to the movie a gift for telling concrete detail—like the scrape of the protagonist's wedding ring on a highway overpass, where the human mandate behind each is no longer an ongoing concern. Someday maybe we'll get to see the movie's original cut, reportedly too grim for wide release. But its most convincingly despairing scenes raise the suspicion that we should settle for getting off light. Not even connoisseurs of post-apocalyptic misery would want to see The Road go on forever.

Email arts@ nashvillescene.com.

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