Without reading a line from his novels, I’d wager Cormac McCarthy isn’t an optimistic man. The Coens’ 2007 award-winning adaptation of his No Country for Old Men painted a bleak chaotic reality where unrelenting guilt remained unpunished and “the good guys” peddled along in confused obscurity, ever-failing to preserve order. Now director John Hillcoat brings us his vision of McCarthys’ most famous novel, The Road, a film that aspires to explore many of the same “gray” elements that made No Country a milestone of modern cinema. Does the film further McCarthy’s bleak world-view or is it as barren as the reality it creates?
At its heart, The Road is a story of survival; Viggo Mortenson plays the nameless “Man”, father of Kodi Smit-McPhee’s “Boy”, who passionately defends the child against hunger, cannibalism and other horrors of a post-apocalyptic world. Hillcoat utilizes objects to illustrate his fictional society; in the first few scenes, the father and son mindlessly walk over a $100 bill, finding it worthless. Later, they dine on Cheetos and Snickers for dinner—why bother with health when there’s nothing to seek but death? Unfortunately, these insights-by-objects are the film’s highlights. Sure, arrow-bolts occasionally strike a character’s leg and cannibals show up in various incarnations of Mexican standoffs, but none of these further character development or plot, nor are they especially exciting or well-directed. These unnecessary scenes add a bi-polar feel to what’s essentially a character study in the art of survival—exposes the film’s inability to commit to either arthouse or spookhouse identity.
After his son falls ill during one scene, Viggo Mortenson’s character carries the boy across his back through the surrounding wastelands; sadly, Mortenson ends up shouldering much more than the boy’s weight during The Road. His performance is the film’s single animated saving grace, though even it falls short of believability thanks to a divided presentation; long chunks of internal monologue are delivered in a flat monotone completely at ends with the desperate, pathetic intonation and actions of the character he portrays. This apparent madness could be explained by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays the whiniest, most idiotic child I’ve witnessed in a post-apocalyptic future. When the boy wanders off solo to meet a stranger in the house across from his, one wonders how a child raised from birth in a cannibal-ridden wasteland could grow up so dumb.
The greatest detriment to Hillcoat’s film is the variety of stories he could have otherwise successfully told using this same scenario. During one of his many monologue narrations, Mortenson states “She died out there somewhere in the dark and cold and there’s no other story to tell”. Actually, there is, but the director chose not to tell it. In fact, the story of greatest intrigue—how Earth became a barren wasteland—is alluded to only once during the entire film, and even then it’s recounted only in vague phrases by a nearly-blind hobo. Unlike No Country for Old Men, which drummed up massive speculation concerning theme and meaning, The Road drags along, much like its characters, to a slow and inevitable death, never once answering why you’re watching; its two hour ten minute run-time is spent mostly wondering if it will ever commit to a genre.
Perhaps Cormac McCarthy didn’t set out to entertain readers with a cannibalistic tale of action and adventure, or perhaps I expected better fleshed-out characters or a more traditional dystopian future. Regardless, Hillcoat’s The Road lacks engagement—the one element essential to all good fiction. Rather than developing a connection between audience and characters, we’re thrust into the story en media res, the director apparently presuming we’ll care about his creations simply because they exist. This oversight pushes what may have been a compassionate struggle for survival between father and son into the realm of whimpering melodrama, a problem the film never fully reconciles. It’s not especially bad—just not particularly good; slow meditative studies of characters and humanity demand a certain charisma to engage interest, or at least an engrossing plot to drive things along. The Road offers neither, instead forcing upon audiences a turgid resignation to the pointlessness of it all.