Cormac McCarthy is currently viewed as America’s greatest living author. His books are bestsellers and No Country For Old Men, released as a film in 2007, was a multi-Oscar winning film. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, a post-apocalyptic road story has now been turned into a film by The Proposition director, John Hillcoat. The book was outstanding, but can the adaptation live up to what is viewed as a modern classic?
The world is dying. After some unnamed apocalyptic event, society has crumbled, millions are dead, and those who survive face a hopeless, grey, dark future. A man and his son travel alone along a road, heading for the coast. They don’t know what they will find there. But they will do all they can to survive the journey. Along the way, the encounter gangs of violent killers, people forced into cannibalism, and lone survivors, trying to find a life but without much hope.
Sounds like a pretty upbeat and joyful film, eh?! It is a grim and relentlessly downbeat film, however there is plenty of beauty to be found within. Central to this are the performances. The cast is populated by very few characters. Other than the man and the boy, most other humans they encounter last barely a few scenes before they are dispatched, or go on their own way. And yet there is not one performance that is in any way weak. The whole film hinges on the relationship between the father and his son. It is through their eyes that we see this dying world. The father is a pragmatist, and will kill to protect his son, the light of his world, and one of the few pure things left in their world. Yet despite his pragmatism, his humanity is been sapped by the fear, paranoia and hopelessness of their situation, and it is up to his son to keep him from losing his humanity completely.
This was the overriding theme of the book, and Hillcoat has successfully managed to retain this vital element in the film. Central to his success is his superb casting of Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the father and son respectively. Mortensen conveys his desperation to instil good values in his son while fighting a situation that brings out the worst in humanity superbly. He successfully manages to be the average man stuck in extraordinarily grim circumstances. Newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee mixes the wide-eyed innocence of a boy who is aware that the world is a dangerous place, but still has the innocence that comes with wanting to be the good guys. And he manages to balance these two elements perfectly. These are two remarkably subtle performances and embody the characters of the book superbly. Also making appearances are Michael K. Williams and Robert Duvall. Both are brilliant in two tiny, yet pivotal roles, and in particular, Robert Duvall does outstanding work with so little to go by.
The Road could very easily have been a disaster of a film. Yet Hillcoat’s brilliant direction finds beauty in what should be a hopeless and somber film. There are few special effects. And yet the world looks like a post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s a film of remarkable subtleties and at times gut-wrenching harshness. And it’s this balance that is what makes The Road such a success. Brilliant performances, a sparse and yet poignant script and outstanding direction make The Road an outstanding start to 2010. We can only hope it’s the beginning of a trend.