I finally got to see John Hillcoat and Joe Penhall’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road this weekend, and I was not disappointed. McCarthy’s bleak post-apocalyptic father-and-son story is one of my favorite books. The film is extremely faithful, though sadly it leaves out the baby-eating, one of the most memorable scenes from the book. Not that we needed baby-eating. Laid out on the screen, the depravity and desperation of humans without a society are horrifying enough. My friend Alex, who had not read the book, cringed visibly throughout.
The Road is not a story for those seeking a happy ending. It follows the travels of an unnamed father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) after an unspecified disaster has left the world scorched and almost every living thing dead. The plot begins long after the two have taken to walking the highways, heading to “the coast,” where the father thinks they may find some solace. Both book and film return via flashback to the time between the disaster and their departure, when the man’s wife/boy’s mother (Charlize Theron) was still alive. The film lingers longer in these scenes, and while they were heavy in the novel, they are heartbreaking in the film. Theron’s performance is passable, if rote, but Mortensen brings a true emotional depth to his character. The overwhelming weakness and fear, the resistance to accept that his world has changed, are in sharp contrast with the hardened, do-what-is-needed man he becomes once his wife is gone.
The Road reveals brilliantly how thin is the veil of society that separates human from animal, and how readily many people will revert to their animal nature when that society is removed and stress applied. The post-apocalyptic vision is at this point a cliche in Hollywood film, but where so many films use the apocalypse as a frame for a story of epic heroism, The Road lingers in the realm of actual humans. We never know what the apocalypse was, presumably because with no television or radio, no one in the story has that information. Their only cause is to survive, and their most heroic action is to resist descending into cannibalism. There are no heroes here, only desperate people fighting to eke out an existence in a world that can barely support them.
Visually, the film is beautiful in an utterly oppressive way. What’s even more impressive is that the scenes of a desolate, dying world were not crafted in a computer like Pandora. These are images of our actual world, many of them places ravaged by actual disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the eruption of Mount Saint Helens. A large portion of the filming took place in Western Pennsylvania, along the Abandoned Pensylvania Turnpike and in a portion of a rural amusement park destroyed by fire.
When the movie ended, a guy behind me announced loudly, “that movie was a downer.” That it certainly is, but it’s also beautiful and brilliant and poignant in a way few films are. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a date movie, but it’s going near the top of my list of the best films of 2009.