Mill Valley Film Festival Review: THE ROAD

Don R. Lewis

by: Don R. Lewis
November 25th, 2009


Rating: 6/10

Writers: Cormac McCarthy (novel) and Joe Penhall (screenplay adaptation)
Director: John Hillcoat
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall
Studio: Dimension

Originally posted on Oct. 13th

Heading into John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s dreary epic “The Road,” I made a promise to myself to judge the film based on its own merits rather than those of the book. Let me be clear, I am a big, big fan of the book. But it’s always seemed silly to me to compare two disparate art forms and lets be honest, rarely (if ever) does the movie stack up to the book. Yet as Hillcoat’s film unspooled before me, it became basically impossible to separate his vision from that of McCarthy’s and as a result, the film left me kind of cold.

Hillcoat did nothing wrong here and early fears I had that the post-apocalyptic father-son love story would be “Hollywoodized” were not met. It’s just that the time constraints inherent in films made the whole miserable, yet tender story of THE ROAD feel crammed into a two hour time frame, while reading the book forces you to pause, to walk away, to digest what is happening as it’s happening. And even though my opinion of the film has improved slightly after a night’s sleep and some dwelling, I simply can’t help but feel somewhat let down by what is an amazing piece of fiction turned into a fine, if not a wee bit boring, adaptation.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, there’s really not much to say. THE ROAD takes place in the not-so-distant future where an unexplained event has all but destroyed the earth. There are hints that the disaster was nuclear and others that it was some massive natural disaster, but the end result is all the same. Earth is a bleak, gray, ashen mess with no food, gas, electricity, or safety. Earthquakes rumble and cause huge swaths of trees to come crashing down and the few survivors that we see are gruesome-looking cannibal hillbilly types who scavenge for whatever they can find, and it ain’t much. A man (Mortensen) and his boy (Smit-McPhee) are traveling along the road looking for…something. While the man claims it’s the ocean, there’s clearly allegory at work about the kind of pointless, existential meaning of life that can seep into anyone’s mind if allowed. But the bond between father and son is impenetrable.

So, they walk. And walk and hide and then walk some more. And don’t get me wrong, the story is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. Certain death hangs like a wicked stench and around any corner could be the joy of a simple pleasure like a soda pop or some peanuts. Or, there could be some creepy ass dude who wants to rape your kid and eat the both of you. Yet I never felt myself fully involved in the story as much as I did, yes, in the book.

In the book, you never doubt for a second the bond between father and son, while in the film, I kind of felt like “Man” was too cowardly to end this misery for him and his son. Sure, he speaks of being too afraid in the book, but Hillcoat brings this idea for the fore and I felt it made the film suffer. There’s also some really kind of pointless flashbacks to “Wife” (Theron), who in the book wasn’t talked about much but here, seems like she took the smart way out long ago. Again, THE ROAD hasn’t been watered down to gain mass appeal, the changes are slight. But when you’re changing something as devastating and tragic as McCarthy’s book, you tend to notice.

So while I certainly didn’t hate this film, I was somewhat underwhelmed. It’s just a really tough sell to put a father and son into a really awful situation and kind of march them around in a living hell for 120 minutes. Hillcoat continues to be the master of filth and desolation, as I didn’t think any film after his amazing western THE PROPOSITION could make me scratch at myself like we all do at the mere mention of the words “head lice.” But good acting and incredible set design aren’t enough to make THE ROAD anything better than middle of its namesake.

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  • http://thefilmnest.com The Rake

    While I agree that the comparisons between book and film have to be made here, I actually am curious to see what people who had yet to read the book think of the film. I read the book, and enjoyed the film. But having read the book, then watching the film, I knew what was going to happen. I think the lack of Hollywoodization is what makes the film strong. My review is here for those interested.
    The Rake

  • https://gordonandthewhale.com RustyGordon

    I own, but have not read the book yet. I volunter to watch and review the film before reading the book.

    You want something done? We make it happen here at GATW. This is truly where dreams come true.

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  • dustinflynn

    Book was really good, a bit disappointed behind the whole nuclear thing hinted at, considering that natural disaster would be much more likely to decimate the earth way more than nuclear warfare.

  • dustinflynn

    Book was really good, a bit disappointed behind the whole nuclear thing hinted at, considering that natural disaster would be much more likely to decimate the earth way more than nuclear warfare.

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