The Road seems like it should work. Cormac McCarthy’s novel is a riveting depiction of life after society has broken down completely, following a bedraggled father and son as they achingly march towards the coast and the indeterminate promise that there may be something better there than the harsh landscape they’re crossing. Director John Hillcoat’s previous film, The Proposition, demonstrated a willingness to explore dark themes and draw bleak conclusions, qualities that would definitely be necessary with this material. Completing the promising picture was the casting of Viggo Mortenson in the lead role, another example of the ways in which he’s used that Lord of the Rings clout to seek out challenging roles. The pieces were in place, the right choices seemingly being made. But the resulting film is a dour bore, an unrewarding slog that seems to make the argument that McCarthy’s book never should have been transferred from page to screen in the first place.
The thought process behind that conclusion is encapsulated in one scene in particular. The man and the boy (they are given no other names in the book, although the boy’s name is mentioned in passing at one point in the film) come upon a large house that seems to be abandoned, as are most buildings they encounter. They enter and explore, looking for food, fuel, any of the vital and scarce materials they require to keep sustaining themselves on their journey. The break open a locked trap door to the basement and descend to find something horrific. In Cormac McCarthy’s original work this is a stretch of breathtaking tension. In John Hillcoat’s film, it just happens, invested with a level of energy not markedly different from any of the other episodic moments. It’s hard to find anything particularly wrong with the way that Hillcoat stages the scene. He’s faithful to the tone of the novel, neither softening this sequence or luridly exploiting its gory details. It plays out exactly the way it should, and yet it’s as flat as pavement.
Maybe the book works when the film doesn’t because McCarthy’s capability to create an immersive experience is jarring in its effectiveness, whereas such enveloping sensations are built right in to the machinery of movies, making Hillcoat’s fairly evocative realization of a world fraying away like old clothing less immediate. Maybe it’s the way that McCarthy’s spare writing mirrors the destitute civilization he depicts, the sentences rendered down till they’re like bare skeletons scratching across the page. Beyond resorting to some sort of von Trier style reductive tomfoolery, it’s hard to fathom how Hillcoat might find the suitable cinematic equivalent. Maybe it’s just that sometimes art is captured in the right form the first time around, and no matter how freely we take stories from one format to another, there are just things that naturally refute transfer. They’re not unfilmable like some oversize novel of curlicue plotting. Instead, they just belong on the page instead of on the screen. John Hillcoat gave The Road his best effort. It’s an admirable attempt. That doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that this film reason has any compelling reason for being.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)