Monday, December 14, 2009

The Road

By Elise Nakhnikian

With collapsing economies and intractable wars eroding our sense of security, no wonder there are so many movies about the apocalypse these days. 2012, Wall-E, I Am Legend, and all those zombie movies (to name just a few) offer a little catharsis. First they wipe out whole civilizations, then they show how a few hardy survivors cope with the consequences.

I can’t get enough of this stuff, the trashier the better: I’ll see anything with a zombie or a tidal wave in it. I can’t resist serious apocalypse movies either, but they’re more of a risk. A self-aware splatterfest like Zombieland aims to let a little air out of your sense of dread, but it wants to entertain you too. Earnest apocalypse movies just want to pump up the dread, challenging you to question your own assumptions or behavior.

Apocalypse stories don’t come much more serious than The Road, a bleak, Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy specializes in Old-Testament-style stories about old-fashioned good guys – taciturn hombres who know how to do things like forage for food or evade a homicidal killer – pitted against implacably evil foes in perilous landscapes.

As its title indicates, The Road is a road trip stripped down to its skivvies. A father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) – identified only as “the man” and “the boy” – are making their way through a dead landscape a decade or so after an unspecified disaster. Virtually all animal and plant life has been decimated. The few human survivors are either refugees like the man and the boy, travelling on their own or in very small groups, or near-feral cannibals roving the countryside in bands.

As the Coen Brothers did in their 2007 adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, director John Hillcoat sticks like Velcro to the novel’s storyline, rarely embroidering the author’s spare but eloquent dialogue. That makes for an unusually austere apocalypse film: What interests McCarthy is what makes us human and what we will do to survive, so we don’t get the usual perverse thrill of seeing the world get destroyed.

We feel no glory or glee when people die, either: When someone pulls out a weapon in The Road, we feel the full and terrible weight of that act. But most of all, we feel the tenderness and ferocity with which the father protects his boy, nurturing his compassion, teaching him how to survive on his own, and trying to shield him from the worst of the horrors that surround them.

The trashed-looking sets and the grimly beautiful cinematography make a valiant attempt to communicate the melancholic beauty of McCarthy’s prose, but they don’t quite succeed. Maybe it’s just too much to ask any actual location to match the power of the impressions unleashed by a passage like: “The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes.”

Visual clich├ęs, like the golden sunlight that bathes the man’s flashbacks or the handsome Pendleton blanket he finds in time for a climactic scene, occasionally make the movie feel more Hollywood than holocaust. It doesn’t help that the main actors are so beautiful, either, giving their suffering the art-directed feel of Garbo’s death throes in Camille.

Mortensen pours his formidable soul into his role, suffusing the father with tenderness and vulnerability while looking entirely capable of extracting an arrowhead from his own calf. He can’t help it if starvation just makes him look better – he worked hard to get grungy for the role – but his picturesquely gaunt cheekbones and fashionably scruffy beard are as distractingly Hollywood as Smit-McPhee’s limpid blue eyes and improbably well-nourished cheeks. (In contrast, Robert Duvall and Michael Kenneth Williams, The Wire’s Omar, look convincingly down and out in their standout cameos.)

Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penall also soften the book’s adamantine spine by giving us less of the man’s thoughts and fears and by toning down the boy’s terror and amping up his faith in human nature. They conjure up golden images of the man’s wife far too often, diminishing his grief for a lost world by roping it too tightly to that single cause. And where McCarthy follows his far from neatly resolved happy “ending” with a mournful final paragraph, the filmmakers end with happy talk, sold hard.

The movie was beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, and occasionally creepy, but it won’t haunt my dreams the way the book still does.

Does that come as something of a relief? Yeah, I guess so. But it’s more of a disappointment.

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