The Road, Cormac McCarthys Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oprah-endorsed post-apocalyptic survivalist prose poem in which a father and his 10-year-old son traverse a despoiled landscape of unspeakable horror was a quick, lacerating read. Director John Hillcoats literal adaptation, which arrives one Thanksgiving past its original release date, is a long, dull slog.
The Road has a certain pragmatic integrity. (While aimed at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, its being strategically released by the Weinstein Companys genre label Dimension.) Fidelity to the material is not the problem on the contrary. Freezing, starving and dodging cannibal marauders, the Man (earnest, increasingly Christ-like Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (stolidly whimpering Kodi Smit-McPhee) follow the novels keep-on-keepin-on trajectory (apparently to Floridas Gold Coast), carrying the fire of human decency, as well as a gun loaded with two suicide bullets.
As a director, Hillcoat is certainly credentialed to handle this unpleasant saga. The Proposition, his 2006 Australian Outback oater, was a tale set in a dry-gulch hellhole of ferocious carnage. Although mildly sanitized, The Road has its grim frissons, but theres a bizarre absence of dramatic tension. One can either embrace McCarthys laconic tone or ignore it. Hillcoat does neither. His Road never eludes its weighty pedigree where McCarthy was free to focus on how a post-human world might feel, Hillcoat was compelled to illustrate these impressions and organize them into a coherent narrative.
Ultimately, Hillcoats The Road is less a disaster (or post-disaster) flick than a sort of global death trip, intended possibly as an audience ordeal in the tradition of The Passion of the Christ, complete with redemptive ending and regularly articulated life lessons. All meetings on the road are potential parables; every repetitive exchange between the Man and the Boy is presented as a mantra; and the appearance of a rheumy, putrid Old Man provides a gabby cameo for guest star Robert Duvall.
The Roads long and winding path to the multiplex might make a more fascinating saga than the movie itself. The 2008 version was evidently deemed too bleak for audience consumption, which may account for the presence of Mortensens lugubrious, voice-over croon and the ruminative keyboard doodling used to soften every other scene. In addition to the obtrusive Nick Cave and Warren Ellis score, the Boys dead mother, who regularly appears in the Mans thoughts in the tawny, distracted form of Charlize Theron, is at one point playing the piano.
Other memories of Life Before include gauzy close-ups of flowers, trees and the family horse. The latter is a nice touch, although my favorite addition to the novel is the close-up of the post-apocalyptic puppy that appears in the movies final scene. Its reminiscent of the voice-over that opens Sam Fullers Vietnam-set China Gate: In this ravaged city where people are starving, all the dogs have been eaten except one.