In 2007, Joel and Ethan Coen set the bar for adapting the writing of Cormac McCarthy to film with No Country For Old Men. The key to adapting McCarthy, they realised, is to play it as straight as possible; to transfer the book more or less directly to film without deviating off the path the author has laid out. Australian director John Hillcoat seems to have approached The Road with this lesson in mind, crafting a film that encapsulates what made McCarthy's book a masterpiece, but at the same time standing up as an excellent film in its own right. It's bleak, uncompromising, horrific and depressing, and altogether quite brilliant.
The Road never gets into specifics. It's set sometime after an unspecified apocalyptic event, in an unspecified part of America, and focuses on a man (Viggo Mortensen) and a boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) whose names are never given. The plot is simple enough - the man and boy are headed South, towards the sea, striving simply to find purpose and survive amongst the wasteland of America. The man's wife, the again unnamed 'woman' (Charlize Theron), has long since given up hope and abandoned the pair, choosing death over continued existence, and the man and boy must contend with robbers, cannibals and the continued environmental degradation of the earth. Like I said: bleak.
From a visual standpoint, The Road is near perfect. The world of the film is powerful simply because it feels like the result of a plausible apocalypse - although the environmental damage angle is toned down compared to how it was presented in McCarthy's text, there's enough subtext here to play up the 'this could actually happen' angle without overdoing it. A sense of danger and abandonment is rife in every piece of scenery and background detail, completely selling the notion of a world, essentially, gone mad.
At no point does the film display anything less than total commitment to its apocalypse. It cuts right to the heart and soul of the original story - the connection between the man and the boy, who have nothing to live for but each other. The misery is unrelenting - horrific discoveries are made in basements, knives are held at throats, the notion of trust is completely abandoned and the man makes absolutely certain that the boy knows how to commit suicide if need be. Yet it is ultimately the love that the man and boy share that keeps the film afloat - there's no sap or sentiment, but their connection gives enough reason for survival.
The film has been delayed for a full year in America (it won't hit Australian cinemas until late January), presumably because Paramount wanted to make sure the film was remembered come Oscar time. Viggo Mortensen's frail, terrified and sad performance, although perhaps not likely to win, is in with a solid chance of a nomination. The real star of the show, however, is the boy Kodi Smit-McPhee's performance feels genuine to the point of heartbreak, and the sound of his tears should be enough to reduce some audience members to tears of their own. His depictions of misery and desperation are brave, bordering at times on flat-out heroic for a kid his age. It's perhaps the best performance by a child in a movie since Dillon Freasier in There Will Be Blood. The make-up and costume work on all the characters is truly brilliant as well. The collective grime of the film's apocalypse is evident in every tired face, ill-fitting jacket, makeshift pair of shoes and disheveled hairstyle the film frames and fusses over.
Yet great as it is, the film occasionally stumbles, or deviates from the source material in a way that lessens the overall impact of the story. Although the semi-frequent flashbacks to happier times help to maintain the film's pacing without the entire trauma getting stodgy, there are scenes that veer dangerously close to being corny.
The dialogue is occasionally jarring, simply because there's a clear differentiation between the lines that are pulled directly from the book and lines that have been written for the film. It's not a big deal at all - it just results in a few moments of inconsistency. The significant, albeit necessary pruning of scenes and themes from the book also means that there's a fairly important line towards the end that seem to come out of nowhere, as the motif being emphasized is only mentioned once prior to that. The soundtrack, composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, is suitable throughout, but grows somewhat repetitive and even generic over time, which is a little surprising.
But for all these minor issues and inconsistencies, The Road is about as good an adaptation as you could reasonably hope for. Whether you're familiar with the original text or not, The Road is a phenomenal film. It won't lift your spirits or put a skip in your step in fact, some audience members will find themselves weepy-eyed and drained at the end, and if you're already feeling depressed, you might want to wait for your mood to clear up before checking it out. But it is this intense emotional payoff that makes The Road one of the most important and moving films to come along in a long time.