Monday, May 31, 2010

A Birth in Grief and Ashes: Thoughts on The Road

"All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them." (74)

"He walked out into the gray light and stood and saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the interstate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like gorundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it." (130)

"He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not." (131)

"A dead swamp. Dead trees standing out of the gray and relic hagmoss. The silky spills of ash against the curbing. He stood leaning on the concrete rail. Perhaps in the world's destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular." (274)

[All quotes come from the Vintage International trade paperback edition of the novel.]

Cormac McCarthy's The Road is one of the great books of the past decade. It's the perfect example of a master author simultaneously appeasing the masses while supplying a richer, more complex subtext (the novel is not just about hope and survival as Oprah would have you believe). Because of the quality of writing here, and the mass appeal and success of the novel, it's no surprise that the novel was adapted into a film destined to be released on the festival circuit before raking in numerous Oscar nominations. However, when John Hillcoat (whose The Proposition also evoked McCarthy, reminding me of Blood Meridian) finished filming The Road I don't think he imagined the film's release being held back twice; ultimately, leading to the film's forgettable release in late 2009/early 2010 after the glut of Oscar hopefuls had already hit theaters. The film just kind of petered out, and its lukewarm reception caused it quickly to fade from people's memory as anything worthy of much thought, let alone deconstruction. The general consensus was that Viggo Mortensen gave (another) great performance, but the film's tone was so dour, and its aesthetic too dilapidated and gray, that the film was a slog to get through. However, what I think we have here is an adaptation that not only gets the aesthetic right, but adds some powerful and poignant context to McCarthy's intentionally skeletal character backgrounds. It all coalesces into a rare film experience: here's a film that is faithful to the novel (sometimes a tad too faithful) while showcasing the talents and vision of the filmmakers and actors. It may be the closest thing we'll ever get to a legitimate visual representation of the tone and themes found throughout McCarthy's oeuvre.

One of the hardest things to do when reviewing a film based on a novel you've read (especially one you adore so much) is the ability to distance yourself from the source material and criticize what's on screen. I had trouble doing this with 2007's Atonement, a film based on the novel by Ian McEwan – one of my favorite authors – about WWII, love, lies, and how all of those things affect the way we tell our life story. I didn't much care for director Joe Wright's vision of McEwan's source material, so I was left feeling a little sour after watching that film. His vision failed to excite me, it failed to make me think that the film was great at being its own interpretation of the novel – something that could stand on its own – while still making me think of all the things I loved about the novel; rather, it just made me wish I had re-read the novel than sat through the film version. Not so with John Hillcoat and his version of The Road, which is exactly how I envisioned it looking while I read through McCarthy's sparse and brusque paragraphs and lines of dialogue. I was half expecting this, though, because I loved Hillcoat's The Proposition so much, and was expecting a good looking film; however, what I wasn't expecting was to be so emotionally involved. The film's imagery beats you down to a point where you almost can't take it anymore, but Hillcoat understands this and cuts back and forth between life before nuclear holocaust – showing us images of The Man (Mortensen) and the Wife (Charlize Theron) – and after as The Man and The Boy (Kody Smit-McPhee) struggle to survive so that they can continue their somewhat meaningless journey to "carry the fire".

This added context to the characters makes the dark and gray mood of the film more bearable because Hillcoat isn't hitting us over the head with the bleak imagery (even though there's a lot of it), and what I was so surprised at was how much emotion I felt during the film as I was preparing for something that would look good, but be nothing more than fluff in the narrative department offering up Oprah-like philosophies on God, hope, and the good of mankind. Thankfully Hillcoat stays away from that and with intense focus stays the course in preserving the themes and mood of McCarthy's novel. The flashbacks are powerful and poignant and all the credit goes to Mortensen (doing arguably his best acting he's ever done, Eastern Promises being the argument) and Theron who give an added depth to the (purposefully) minimally sketched out characters of McCarthy's novel. Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography is haunting, dark, and surprisingly beautiful to look at. Yes, there's a lot of desolation here to look at for nearly two hours, but I found myself being awed by the on-location cinematography and the Aguirresarobe was able to evoke such beauty out of such gray and minimalistic elements that stay true to the novel's tone. Once again Hillcoat has collaborated with musician Nick Cave to create a beautiful and haunting score that often accompanies Moretensen's somber narration. It's almost as if this were an existentially nihilistic version of Koyaanisqatsi – a tone poem with beautiful music juxtaposed with haunting imagery (that can also be seen as beautiful) of an out of balance life.

As previously mentioned the acting here is superb, headed by Mortensen's brilliant performance as he conveys a bevy of emotions without being given much to do (again, purposefully), and the acting he does in those flashback scenes are some of the best work of the man's career. There's real power there. The rest of the cast is serviceable in supporting the weight of Mortensen's role. Smit-McPhee is good at balancing The Boy's character, and seems at home acting with heavyweights like Mortensen and Robert Duvall (Ely) as to not make him a clichéd version of an annoying child actor given too large a role that seem lost amongst the professionals. The aforementioned Duvall gets all the right notes as weird old man named Ely who seems to embody the typical mythological characters found in journey films like this. And finally there's Theron who in very small role hits all of the notes right in showing the icy exterior of a woman who has seen nuclear holocaust and its effects on society, and has decided it's easier to give up than keep fighting. The final moments between The Wife and The Man are so well acted and so powerful that it's a shame the film didn't get a proper release to showcase the good work done here by Theron and Mortensen.

Hillcoat is wise to keep the film sparse on dialogue and let the visuals do the talking, and much in the same way McCarthy does, Hillcoat wisely keeps the dialogue as ambiguous as a major American release will allow by making the film accessible to the masses, but rich for those who wish to explicate deeper. There's still the obvious reference to "carrying the fire" – a major theme of the book, but not as hopeful as some interpret it as – and Hillcoat, again, wisely keeps the talk of this metaphorical fire to a minimum, ultimately letting ambiguity reign. While reading The Road I often thought to myself – with McCarthy's countless two-word sentences describing the moment ("The silence.") – that this would have been a perfect film for Ingmar Bergman to make were he still alive. Well, I suppose Bergman already has made this film with its themes of divine arbitrariness and ambiguity, a seemingly inactive God in moments where The Man searches for Him, the coldness of that lack of divine intervention as we hear the winds wail and see the bleak destruction laid out in abandoned farm houses or gray, charcoal like beaches. The themes McCarthy, and Hillcoat with the film adaptation, evoke are very much akin to what Bergman constantly explored in films like The Silence, The Virgin Spring, and Winter Light. Some, like Oprah, have chosen to see the "fire" as a metaphor for hope, that amidst all of the post-apocalyptic destruction there still is something worth searching and surviving for (indeed this is what the first quote I posted at the onset is hinting at with its "ancient anointing"); however, I think that McCarthy is saying that hope only exists for the boy because that's how he chooses to view the purpose of their journey on the road. Look deeper at the novel, and merely glance at the visuals of the film, and you'll see a story where God does not exist, where hopelessness hovers heavy just as much as the gray skies do, because any act of "carrying the fire" becomes arbitrary as we have turned ourselves into a society that, should a nuclear holocaust ever occur, we would be lost, we would have no way of knowing how to re-construct a civilization because of our reliance and willingness to be handcuffed and slaves to modern things that dull our natural instincts. This is the darker, postmodern side of McCarthy, and I think this reading is just as appropriate as the hopeful one, and Hillcoat masterfully captures this mood with the film's aesthetic.

Whew. That's heavy. And that's where a lot of the film's detractors state their case that the film is a chore to get through because what McCarthy can do with prose in softening the blow of such a downtrodden premise with an even more dour and ambiguous d̩nouement is something that is a lot harder to do in a theater for two hours surrounded by the onslaught of post-apocalyptic imagery, You can always put a novel down, and I understand the feelings of some reviewers who felt trapped watching the film Рand probably felt the need to plant a tree or eat cotton candy after it just to get some semblance of joy back in their life Рbut you can't deny the mastery and the accomplishment that Hillcoat and his crew exhibit here in showing us McCarthy's vision. It's pretty amazing, actually.

At the beginning of this "review" I posted some of my favorite passages from the novel: these are the passages that make me think McCarthy is one of the five greatest American authors to ever write professionally (and to think that these come from a novel that I think is his third or fourth best). The mythological tone he invokes, the powerful and poignant themes one can elicit from his work, the major movements ranging from existentialism to nihilism to postmodernism one can find while explicating his work, are all found within the frames of Hillcoat's film (images below). Unlike the film version of Atonement, The Road didn't just make me want to go back and read the book, it made me envision it in a new way, it made me appreciate this particular auteur's vision of what McCarthy wrote, and it evoked inside of me all of the emotion I felt while reading McCarthy's novel. That's how you do a good adaptation, and the film version of The Road – despite its intensely dour and gray aesthetic – is one of the very best adaptations of a major novel I've seen.

The best way to describe the film may be through its visuals. I'll let them speak for themselves:


  1. This is a truly great presentation here Kevin, and one worthy of your special 'novel to film' perceptions. I actually DID read Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD was was numbed by the experience as the author's talent in making his reader visualize landscapes was amazing. I did not, however, see the Hillcoat film as capturing the essence of McCathy's bleak vision. This was a kind of apocalyptic "Night of the Living Dead" with ghoulishness running rampant, and an over-the-top visual tapestry. I do agree that Motenson was excellent, though I laughed at the Duvall character. I'll look at this again on DVD, but the theatrical experience was disappointing.

    Again, spectacular work here.

  2. In light of The Proposition, I thought Hillcoat showed considerable restraint in adapting the material, leaving out the roasted newborn among other grisly details. He got the essential point of the novel, or at least he and I agree on it, which is McCarthy's communitarian critique of rugged individualism, carried over from No Country For Old Men, another novel well served by film. I questioned the necessity of the pre-apocalyptic flashbacks with Theron, but otherwise I felt that the movie did the novel justice.

  3. Sam:

    Ah, your Night of the Living Dead comment made me think about the scene where Hillcoat lost it...but it is just one, brief scene (the cellar filled with bodies), and honestly I found myself so emotionally invested in the film that I had completely forgotten that part. Perhaps I didn't think Duvall's character as being comically bad because I just finished the novel, and his character (which is oddly left unnamed in the film, his name is Ely in the book) is an important one.

    Thanks as always for the comment and for the link on WitD. I appreciate it!

  4. Samuel:

    I agree about Hillcoat's restraint. The excessive violence and gore is in the relentlessness of their journey and what is left unseen and thus imagined by the, I was happy to see that Hillcoat held back from some of the grim and gruesome imagery found in the novel. I would say the only scene where he loses sight of it all is the scene in cellar with the unnecessary moment with the guy jumping out at them.

    As for the flashbacks...I state my case in the review, but I'll say it again here: I think that they act as a rare instance where a filmmaker has taken liberties with the material they are adapting from (all we know from the novel is that The Man has dreams and vaguely remembers the night his wife abandoned him and their son), and that choice doesn't sink the actually elevates it. I think had Hillcoat doggedly adhered to a linear storyline -- especially if he were to just throw us into it and never look back -- the bleakness would be too much for any viewer.

    I like your reading of the novel and I think that kind of coincides with what I was talking about before with our society handcuffing ourselves to these technologies, so that now staring at your cell phone while you hang out with your friends doesn't seem breeds that kind of individualism you're talking about. And I agree too about the No Country for Old Men comparison and how the themes seem to carry over from one film to the other.

    Thanks as always for swingin' by, Samuel. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Brilliant piece Kevin.

    Great point regarding source material v screen. In this case, I actually felt that due to my appreciation for the original material, it was difficult to criticize the film on its own merits.

    On a second viewing (and this time DVD, which I think is important regarding such a visual and spacial film), i'm not sure it quite has the emotional impact the book does but Mortensen and Duvall (and Theron for that matter) do some sterling work. Guy Pearce's 'weirded out' quote was also beautifully delivered.

  6. The Road is a film I liked, but had trouble figuring out why I didn't like more than I did. I love post apocalypse, and the more dour, the better. Though I guess the only thing I can really point to, why I ranked it just outside my top 30 for the year 2009, was its very dourness, which shouldn't have bothered me, but must have. It's one of those movies where I can think of only good things to say about it, but am not quick to recommend it.

    Also, I'd like to echo the other commenters on the excellent writing here.

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  8. I haven't read the novel yet, so from that perspective I'd like to say I was a bit ambivalent on the film. I liked it enough to buy the Blu-ray, but there seemed to be something missing. My own review zeroes in on some of the same things you mention in yours:

    Unfortunately, the drawback is director John Hillcoat's detached perspective on the story. [He] endows the film with the appropriate bleakness called for. But the wide-angle point of view taken—no doubt to preserve the metaphorical and mythical stature of the tale—always keeps the viewer at a safe distance. The result is that one is never allowed to fully identify with the Man's moral dilemma and how it impacts his approach to the survival of his son.

    Ironically, THE ROAD'S strongest moments are the ones that deviate in the book, flashbacks where the viewer learns what became of the Man's wife (Charlize Theron)... Theron's defeated Wife is a presence that hangs over the film long after her last scene, a constant reminder of the humanity and optimism that the Man has lost.

    Still, flawed or not, it is a touching, stirring film.

  9. Burning Reels:

    Thanks for the kind words! Yes, Pierce's cameo was great. I think Mortensen is doing some of the best work of his career right now. I appreciate the comment and the visit. Thanks.

  10. Vancetastic:

    Thanks for the visit and for the comment. I agree that dourness really doesn't bother me all that much, but damn, The Road is bleak as hell. Regardless I think Hillcoat did an amazing job adapting the novel and bringing the appropriate tone to the visuals. I watched this again the other day and was even more affected by it.

    Thanks for the kind words in regard to the post. It's great to see new readers here!

  11. Tony:

    I agree with you about the effectiveness of the flashbacks, which oddly, was one of the things people who didn't like the film railed against the most because it deviated from the novel. However, I think that what you're saying about the moral dilemma not being there is partly due to the fact that it's not really in the novel, either. Sure, we can infer a lot when reading the novel (or watching the film), but the narration is not from The Man's point of view (although in typical McCarthy fashion he slips in out of different narrative points of view) so really we aren't privy to his dilemma regarding the "why" he must continue on the road.

    That's why I liked that Hillcoat put the narration in (but it is a little confusing because it leads one to believe that The Man is telling the story in the book) and that he inserted the flashbacks.

    Anywho...I liked your review a lot, Tony, and I hope you'll read the novel soon as I think it's one of the most important works of the last decade.