Sunday, December 13, 2009

Walking a Scorched Earth: The Road

I read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" a few months ago, in anticipation of the film adaptation. As most who have read this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, I considered it both a disturbing and touching novel that uses the backdrop of an post-apocalyptic America to tell the rather simple, straight-forward tale of a man (Played by Viggo Mortensen) and his son (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) attempting to walk towards a destination of perceived safety. Compared to "No Country for Old Men", his previous novel adapted for the screen by Joel and Ethan Coen, I found the novel to be less screen-friendly though, surprisingly, less nihilistic in tone considering the subject matter.

"No Country", as a novel, was written almost in the style of a screenplay. Plus, it used the framework of a genre plot to explore its themes about our changing times. I remember that the Coens had joked that their adaptation of the novel required one of them typing while the other held the spine of the book open. That may be a bit exaggerated, but I read the book after watching that film and was surprised to find every line of dialogue that I felt to be Coen-esque taken straight from McCarthy.

"The Road" is a different beast, plus it carried the burden of being more widely read and celebrated as a masterpiece. It is currently ranking very high, usually at number 1, on lists for best novels of the decade. It is not a story where all that much happens. Except for the occasional flashback, the story takes place long after much of the world has been destroyed and focuses almost exclusively on the moments the father and son share as they try travel across the charred land. The dialogue in "The Road" is quite minimalist, exchanges that demonstrate that those with strong survival instincts have less time for eloquence or the announcement of their own feelings. In some ways, the narrative of this story almost seems like Ed Tom Bell's recollection of a dream in "No Country" come to life.

I must say that it should not have been too surprising the film adaptation written by Joe Penhall and directed by John Hillcoat has been met with either faint praise or simple dismissals. The odd thing is that I felt it was a rather faithful adaptation, one that removes parts of the book that needed to be removed for the medium of film. I also believed that this film was a smart and effective way to tell this difficult story, understanding how important images are to convey the descriptions and prose that do not translate easily. Ultimately, I cannot just measure the film's success by how faithful it adapts its source material, but how it works as a film experience. As an experience, the film moved me in a way that few films this year have even came close to doing, as well as being a truly underrated visual experience with top-notch cinematography, digital grading and compositions of these two figures on abandoned roads and highways that have stayed in my head since watching the film.

Based on his previous film, the underseen, but great "The Proposition", it was not much of a stretch to believe that Hillcoat would have a feel for this material. As a filmmaker, Hillcoat has a strength for invoking strong non-sentimental emotion out of some of the most ugliest situations you can imagine. The father and son constantly have to watch out for cannibals who roam the land, feeding off others' bodies for their own survival. They also have encounters with an elderly drifter (played by Robert Duvall) and a thief (played by Michael K. Williams). Every situation in "The Road", as well as "The Proposition" centers around moral choices. What is the right thing to do in a world where it is increasingly easy to do the wrong thing?

I believe too many have watched this film and simply cannot look past the setting to get at what the movie is about. Perhaps, movie audiences and critics have become so used to the disturbingly trendy post-apocalyptic genre and consider a film like this that does not show the destruction (or even revel in it like those other films do), but concentrates on the basic idea of how does a man raise his boy, not just in this fictional world, but in everyday life. Forgive me for being judgmental here, but I almost wonder whether our society which has shown such a disinterest in parenting (though that doesn't prevent people from having kids) is going to be receptive to a film that shows how difficult and how much dedication it requires for anyone to teach their child to be decent.

Most of the dialogue between the father and son is about the choices they make and how they deal with the harmful and harmless people they come across on their journey. They often bring up the phrases "carrying the fire" or "being the good guy" as principles to attempt to live by that are often challenged by real life. There are simple gestures, such as the scene when they find a Coke can. The father insists that the son drink the whole can, but the son wants to share it with his father. This simple moment foreshadows their entire relationship, particularly the son's willingness to share and give to others when most of us would probably not.

Throughout the film, you can tell that the father, whose main purpose beyond all else is to protect the boy, is also the one who may lose his moral bearings the easiest, to guarantee the safety of his boy. The father has a gun with only two bullets left that he plans to use on his son and then himself in case they ever find themselves in a situation of almost certain death. Their encounters with both the elderly drifter and the thief reflect the father's unwillingness to trust anyone even if the child takes pity on them for being in as nearly a hopeless situation as they are. In some ways, you can sense the son's natural goodness needs to be preserved for the world to have any chance.

This may sound a little too sincere for some, but the film's willingness to put McCarthy's ideas about the weight of parenting front and center were welcome. Hillcoat and Penhall always make the choice to focus on character rather than the tired cliches of the post-apocalyptic genre. As a personal note, when I watched this film on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, there was some moderate snickering from members of the audience, primarily (and I hate to use this term considering how Armond White has run it into the ground) two hipsters sitting right behind me who also added a bit of a whispered running commentary to the film. I almost wonder if people like this with their fashionably cynical views of the world ever understand that maybe this wasn't the film for them. If they had actually read the book and were expecting a gruesome mix of "The Road Warrior" and Roland Emmerich's dingbat disaster-thons, then I have to question whether they actually can read.

John Hillcoat does an effective job with this movie, pacing it slowly but knowing when to move along when the narrative threatens to be repetitive. Little attention has been paid to the cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe, with the help of careful and restrained CGI, does an effective job of showing us the desolation of this world. The road that the father and son travel is often through forestation that has been burned to ashen grey. A scene where they dodge out of the way falling trees is memorable in image and sound design. The movie is beautiful to watch even though the color pallette is strictly black, brown and grey.

There are occasional flashback shots (with natural, vivid color saturation) to better times with Charlize Theron as the mother that I almost feel are unnecessary, though I had no problem with the scenes where she slowly makes her decision to give up on life. The performances of Mortensen and Theron in these scenes were all I needed to know to understand what was being lost. There have been many odd complaints about Nick Cave's score for being too sentimental, which truly baffles me. Considering the bombastic scores we often hear these days, I found his score to be restrained and never intrusive in what was happening on the screen. Overall, this is still a rather quiet film that will have stretches where the sound effects of nature is all that you will hear in a scene.

If there is an issue, there is occasional voiceover that seems to pop up in this and every film produced by Harvey and Bob Weinstein when they believe (and are sadly right sometimes) audience members are too slow to grasp the story visually. Remember Leonardo DiCaprio's voiceover in "Gangs of New York"? At least, the voiceover work in "The Road" is still used sparingly (mostly earlier in the film) and is not as much of a distraction.

We cannot discuss the effectiveness of the film without giving proper credit to the often underrated Viggo Mortensen. Before he appeared as Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the only impression he had ever made as an actor previously was his leading role in Sean Penn's debut film "The Indian Runner". Now with those films, his two with David Cronenberg, "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises", and now "The Road", Mortensen has become one of the most valued and restrained actors of our time. This is a fully committed performance, embracing both the physical dirt and grime on his clothes and body, as well as the emotional weight that this character has to carry on his back throughout the film.

His performance, like the rest of the film, is one that stays away from cheap sentiment but never shies away from the emotion of each scene. Mortensen genuinely looks like he has lived through the apocalypse, as opposed to having stepped into the aftermath of one. I have to admit, from reading the book, Mortensen was pretty much the only actor I can come up with who could have pulled this off with the understatement of the novel's dialogue and the character's behavior. Considering what the character has to go through in the last half hour, it would have been easy for him to milk his moments for effect, but he stays true to the character.

"The Road" is currently playing in theaters in what seems like the Weinstein Company dumping a movie that was not going to please anyone looking for an easy narrative hook. That's a shame considering all the apocalyptic porn out there that feels the mass deaths of millions is fodder for cheap thrills. I actually believe this film says something more illuminating about not only the spirit of survival but the struggle to not lose one's soul in the process. I wish that maybe others out there will either stop trying to compare it with the movie that they made in their head when reading the book (although, I still add, it is very faithful) or perhaps allow themselves to invest emotionally in a story that is truly about hope that is earned, as opposed to a cheapened concept that is exploited by lesser filmmakers to reassure you that the world isn't that bad if you employ a great deal of wishful thinking.

This was an emotionally honest and brutal film for me and deserves more of a chance than it is receiving right now.

The Road was seen at AMC Loews Lincoln Square.


Jason Bellamy said...

Very good thoughts here. Some replies ...

Perhaps, movie audiences and critics have become so used to the disturbingly trendy post-apocalyptic genre and consider a film like this that does not show the destruction ... but concentrates on the basic idea of how does a man raise his boy...

My problem, I guess I'd say, with the film is that I don't think the movie really concentrates our attention on the parenting. I think that's what it aims to do. And I've read enough reviews from people who have read the book to know that those familiar with McCarthy's source seem to spot the parenting examination. But for me, unfamiliar with the story, I found that the threat of danger distracted from these deeper themes.

Almost every encounter the father/son have is about danger. Either it's real (three encounters with people who would try to hurt them) or feared (encounters with anyone else). With so much attention paid to the danger, which feels sickeningly real, it was hard for me to get into the relationship. I suspect this isn't an obstacle for the book readers.

For example, when the father/son are in the underground bunker, I was always aware that they were in danger of being discovered. Since book readers know that they won't be discovered there, I suspect you don't have the same level of fear. You know ahead of time which encounters will really harm them and which ones won't, so you can enjoy moments where you can appreciate the relationship and not feel consumed by their vulnerability.

That said, I agree with your praise for Mortensen, your criticism of "apocalyptic porn," and your suggestion that too many people are comparing The Road to the novel. (Seriously: Try to find me five reviews of the film that don't compare it to the novel. Three even.)

I think this is a good film overall, and it might be better for me the second time around. But I see the 'preparing a child for life' theme to be what the film attempts to explore, not what it actually puts in focus.

Steven Santos said...

Jason, thanks for the response. I had read your piece and these comments now do illuminate to me why I may be seeing the film differently. It may also be that the threat is more amplified and front and center when it is realized visually.

I realize I did not talk much about that aspect much in this review, mostly because the constant threat, for me, was more a function of the plot than necessarily what I took away most from the film. Though if you're approaching this story fresh, I can see that what's going through your mind is what may happen to them next. I probably felt more that way when I read the book.

My complaints about some who have reviewed the film is that they failed to recognize any of the themes of parenting in the film and have reviewed it as just another apocalyptic survival tale which it clearly isn't. Some of these people have even admitted to reading the book, which makes me wonder what film did they think was going to be made from that source material.

Jason Bellamy said...

My complaints about some who have reviewed the film is that they failed to recognize any of the themes of parenting in the film and have reviewed it as just another apocalyptic survival tale which it clearly isn't. Some of these people have even admitted to reading the book, which makes me wonder what film did they think was going to be made from that source material.

True dat.

Almost makes you wonder if said critics actually finished the book they claim to have read.