Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Road

Oddly enough the film that The Road reminds me the most of is American Psycho. Both are perfectly fine adaptations of books that really ought not be adapted. Both left me with the feeling that they probably represent the best adaptations of their source material. Practically platonic ideals really, keeping the essence of their stories intact, while toning down the parts that made them so prickly (The Road goes from mind numblingly bleak to merely depressing, American Psycho goes from sickeningly disturbing to a mere unsettling). And yet both left me with an oddly unsatisfied feeling. If you’re the reason we liked the source material was how different it was, then what’s to gain from an adaptation that tones down the very things that made it unique?

The Road, for those who missed it, became a bizarre best seller in 2006. Bizarre not because it’s a bad book. Like all of McCarthey’s work it’s superlative. But because its also phenomenally depressing. This is the only Pulitzer Prize winning, Oprah book club selection to feature the cooking and eating of a baby.

John Hillcoat proved to be an inspired choice to direct. His grim ass film The Proposition suggested that he was one of the few people who might actually be able to film Blood Meridian (this is a left handed compliment as anyone who has the balls to shoot Blood Meridian would have to be partially insane)

The film version of The Road has been toned down. But only just enough to make it bearable. The bleak vision of a world that has ended is intact. This isn’t something like The Book Of Eli or Mad Max. Something that humanity can eventually rebuild itself from. No the humans in The Road are like the last ants wandering around after some kid filled the hill with lighter fluid and tossed in a match. There’s no coming back.

The fact is the people in The Road are people for whom the phrase, “Nothing you do matters.” Is not a vagary of philosophy but a demonstrable fact. McCarthey’s book is about how it’s humanities impulse to try and do so anyway. The Road actually plays as a companion piece and counterpoint to McCarthey’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian. While Meridian posited that civilization was inherently doomed, because the savagery involved in its creation sowed the seeds of its inevitable destruction. The Road argues that the desire to create such civilization is equally unquenchable. Like the post hole digger at the end of Meridian the Father and Son will keep striking their sparks even in the face of the thing that says it will never sleep and never die. There’s nobility in that. And that’s good because you’re not going to find it anywhere else here.

“Carrying The Fire” is an able Viggo Mortenson bringing his trademark intensity to the role (As well as his trademark desire to show his junk in every movie he appears in, seriously is he in some kind of contest with Harvey Keitel?). He’s strong enough to carry the movie, which is good because aside from his son and a few looters and cannibals he’s about all there is in it. There’s something feral in Mortenson’s performance in the best sense of the word. The protection of his son is a primal instinctual thing. The scene where he bathes his son in the wake of an attack is moving both for its unexpected tenderness and the way that Mortenson so thoroughly resembles a Wolf with his cub. Charlize Theron show’s up in flashback’s as the films only real departure from the novel. Aside from having a place for another name on the poster, I don’t think this added anything to the film.

The boy himself, Kodi Smith McPhee wasn’t very strong in his role, but Mortenson shows such a close tie with him he makes his performance seem better then it is. Robert Duval, Guy Pierce, and particularly Michael K. William’s unforgettable and nearly unrecognizable as an unlucky thief.

The problem with the film is that The Road relied so heavily on McCarthey’s sparse, poetic, neo biblical prose, that it simply refuses to translate. It’s like trying to translate William Blake to film, and without McCarthey’s harsh prose etching out the characters and their world, the film turns into a long slog from horror to horror without a great deal to make it work on its own as a piece of art. For those pissed about how No Country For No Old Men played with the rules of narrative The Road will make you down right apoplectic.

Still the film deserved better then the shabby shrug of a release The Weinstein’s gave it, and the apathetic eye roll it got from Critics. The Road is perhaps in the final analysis an unsuccessful movie, but its not for lack of some truly fine filmmaking, or some truly haunting moments.


The Dirty Mac said...

Viggo is becoming the new Ewan MacGregor (the whole dick hanging out thing).

Bryce Wilson said...

Both bow down to Harvey Keitel, who loves showing his junk off so much I think he missed his calling as a flasher.

I was seriously surprised when it didn't slip through the speaker of the radio in Inglorious Basterds.

Ryan McNeil said...

On the one hand, after so many delays in getting its release, I was happy to see THE ROAD was as good as it was (with such delays often being an indicator of crummy quality).

I'm still shaken at the beautiful melancholy of this film. I mean we're talking about a movie that's composed entirely of shades of grey and brown right? And yet all that grim wasteland looks so amazing in the photography.

I'm with you - when I read this book two years ago I wondered how in the world it could ever be adapted. While this film isn't exactly a perfect adaptation, I do think that it's a daring one...and possibly the best adaptation we could hope for.

Bryce Wilson said...

Completely agree.

Thomas Duke said...

I don't think the novel was "unfilmable", as there is something quite cinematic about both a road and a post-apocalyptic world. I thought the movie was a valiant attempt, but I though it started off poorly the first 15 minutes or so, and there was too much emphasis put on the backstory with the wife. I think it should've concentrated more on the base of the story, the father and son exploring and trying to survive in the world. Anyway, I also wrote a review here:

Bryce Wilson said...

Well its not so much that the world is uncinematic. But the book's structure, "walk from horrible thing to horrible thing until someone dies" is.

Thomas Duke said...

"walk from horrible thing to horrible thing until someone dies"

Yeah, I see your point, but the movie has to just focus on the details/goals/characters, and away from the "hey look, we're fucked" attitude. I think the movie did that a little bit, but could've done better.