The Road | movie review

The Road is, unfortunately, a boring movie, and the title might as well be Sittin’ Round the Campfire. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is one of the very best books of the decade, and this adaptation falls flat for about half the running time. There are good actors, moments, and visuals, but the whole isn’t more the sum of its parts. Viggo Mortensen puts in his patented perfect performance, and he carries the movie as far as his considerable talent can, but he is only one man, and can’t make up for the shortcomings of the director and writers.

John Hillcoat is probably to blame for this disappointment, but what did the studio expect from a man known primarily for music videos, with a scant two films under his belt? A title with this kind of gravitas deserves a proven heavy-hitting director. You get what you pay for, and Hillcoat proves masterful at symbolism but meager on cohesive plot. The Road as a novel is chock-full of powerful beats, and the movie tries to pack as many of these memorable moments in as possible. In order to do this, pacing is sacrificed, with fast cuts between vignettes. Additionally, some scenes are added that are not in the book, and the most powerful bits are left out of the film entirely.

To top off the poor execution, a weepy piano soundtrack makes the proceeding seem sappy and saccharine sweet at times. The film is not all bad, and it manages to compress things the right way at times. In the beginning, the Man and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wake in a cave, the cave the scene of the Man’s dark dream from the book. The visuals are often startlingly impressive, and the digital work is mostly solid, although the panoramas of dead cities look very fake. I was afraid from the previews that the film would not be dark enough, but the environment nearly matches the desperate setting McCarthy originally described.

Viggo really pulls off some great work here, his voiceover work is just perfect, and his weight loss is startling. The foreshadowing desiccated body found on a bed looks a lot like the Man, and you’ll be amazed how deathly Viggo can actually look in the end. The movie does great work in the characters’ appearances; the dirt and grime looks very convincing. Robert Duvall shows up as Eli, a blind old man who spouts off some circular philosophy in classic Cormac McCarthy manner. Duvall’s close-ups, with milky white cataracts, are probably the best scenes in the film. He conveys more of the source material’s power in his short time on screen than the movie itself. He looks and sounds biblical, and the prose is profound. Michael K. Williams also puts in a pretty incredible turn as an unfortunate thief; he looks genuinely desperate, down to the spittle coming out of his mouth.

But that’s as good as it gets. There is no baby cooking on a spit, the most grotesque and powerful scene of the book. The idea of eating future generations is central to the story, and it was a shame Hillcoat got weak knees. It’s also a shame he added a bunch of extraneous bullshit. The audience knows there are cannibals; you don’t have to add a scene of innocents being slaughtered in a field to get the point across. The idea that a family followed them down the road is also a glaring addition that makes no sense. Maybe they could have said something before poor ol’ Pops died of TB. In the book, the boy is shepherded to a compound, but in the movie they thought it would be good for a classic ‘nuclear’ family (haw haw haw) to welcome him with open arms, and a family dog. You have to be kidding me.

The Road isn’t a terrible movie, and it gets things right half of the time. You can’t deny that the movie drags through the middle, and some of the third act is poorly handled. The movie can’t hold a candle to the book, which had much more of a through-the-looking-glass mystery to it, and a willingness to push boundaries. On the other hand, if you’ve been jonesing to see Viggo’s ass again after Eastern Promises, you’ll get it twice in this movie, though he is pretty gaunt. I always imagined the Man to be more of a gruff redneck than an east coast liberal, but that’s just from the audiobook, I guess. The movie hasn’t been given a wide release, so good luck finding it if you decide to go.  By all means, read the book, and go see the movie if you have to, but be ready for some boredom and exasperation with your apocalyptic drama.