Written by: Joe Penhall
Directed by: John Hillcoat
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smith-McPhee, Charlize Theron
Having loved Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road for its contradiction of hopelessness and overwhelming sense of hope, I was awestruck to hear that Hollywood had chosen the perfect actor and perfect director to pull off the adaptation. The story follows The Man(Mortensen) and The Boy (McPhee) as they venture through America in the aftermath of some unnamed disaster which has wiped out all vegetation, all animals and most of humanity. They wander towards the coast and the film rambles with them keeping with the episodic structure of the book. This is not a film with a plot, but rather a film that tells the simplest of stories packed full of meaning and humanity.
One of the strongest points of The Road is the complexity of its central character The Man, played with ferocious grace by the outrageously talented Viggo Mortenson. His desperation is hidden under his resourcefulness and is only truly shown through his fear of other people and his harsh lack of mercy on whomever they meet along the way. However, our sympathy is won by his tenderness and genuine love for his son. He is so desperate to keep his son safe that there is nothing that he does not deem a threat. He is probably right, but at times it is difficult to stay on his side. Since the death of The Woman (Charlize Theron) which is briefly outlined through flashbacks, both Man and Boy truly feel her absence in every way. There is the sense from The Man’s gruff manner that there is something about a woman’s tenderness that cannot be replaced. Despite all attempts to keep his son safe, the maternal nurturing hands of The Woman is needed profoundly by both Man and Boy. The casting of Mortensen, an actor whose endless masculinity has long been exploited by David Cronenberg, and the glowingly beautiful Charlize Theron highlights the primal differences between the two genders and states quite beautifully the function of both in humanity.
The cinematography by Javier Aguirresrobe merges beauty with ugliness seamlessly. The palette of grey and beige never becomes anything less than riveting. He paints a world covered in a mix of ash and snow with black skies and manages to take our breath away. Aguirresrobe’s eye for desolate beauty is clearly well partnered with John Hillcoat, director of The Propostion, a masterclass in that very thing. Between them, this pair create a world so nightmarish that the determination of Man and Boy to survive seems all the more poignant. We can only ask ourselves if we would be so keen.
The character of The Boy is a fascinating one as he was born after the cataclysmic event so he has never lived in a world where anything existed but fear and suffering. His wide-eyed wonder at the slightest thing is touching to behold. A scene near the start where he innocently stamps through a pile of money and jewels on the ground, unaware that such things ever held any worth effectively bangs this idea home. He stares, amazed, at a mounted deer head, as he has probably never seen an animal in his life. In one scene his father asks: “You think I come from another world don’t ya?” And he really does.
Despite my ranting and raving and hysteric joy at what I deem to be the perfect adaptation of a perfect book, this film will not be for everyone. Perhaps some might feel it lays the sentimentality on a bit thick. Others may feel that it is aimless and slow. That is up to the audience themselves. What cannot be denied however, is the fragile blend of tenderness and stark horror that this film accomplishes. All I can say is, well done to all concerned for a job well done!