The Road (2009)

*. I was never clear what happened to The Road. It was based on a bestselling Cormac McCarthy novel and came out just a couple of years after the Coen Brothers had scored a hit with No Country for Old Men. It was a relatively expensive production with some A-list talent. It got mixed but mostly positive reviews, including some raves. But it flatlined at the box office and today almost nobody talks about it.
*. Part of this seems to have been due to its receiving very little promotion. The studio played around with its release date, I think perhaps realizing that there were problems. But more than this I think it’s a movie that some people admired but few enjoyed. I neither admire it nor enjoy it. In fact, I don’t like it much at all.
*. I reviewed the novel when it came out, and even though I’d been a fan of McCarthy for a while I was starting to sour on him. The Road seemed to me representative of the rut he had become stuck in (a not surprising rut given that he was by then an old man who was written out). I thought the story was just a trashy tale of the apocalypse rendered in a pastiche of folksy-Biblical language. Still, I had some hopes for the movie. McCarthy’s novels have a deliberately cinematic cast to them, making screen adaptations easy and natural (No Country for Old Men was in fact originally written as a screenplay.) Maybe, I figured, it would play better as a movie, as that seems to have been how it was originally conceived.
*. For example, in the book the road gang are presented as very much something out of one of the Mad Max movies: an army of mix-and-match desperados with slave girls and catamites being led in chains behind their wagon train. On the DVD commentary director John Hillcoat talks about how they wanted to tone this down so as not to be referencing The Road Warrior. Which is funny in a circular way. A reference to The Road Warrior was taken out so as not to reference The Road Warrior.
*. To be honest though, what I was looking forward to the most was some explanation of how the Man (played by Viggo Mortensen) was going to push a shopping cart through snowy woods. Or even down a road very far. Most shopping carts don’t handle that well in grocery-store aisles, and though they are sometimes adopted by the homeless in big cities they don’t have to do anything like the work the one in the book does (where at least they show the Man having to repair the wheels at one point). Well, as it turns out the cart is ditched in the early going here and they move to a more practical sled with bicycle wheels. This was done deliberately. As Hillcoat mentions on the commentary, it’s physically impossible to use a shopping cart the way it’s used in the book. I mentioned this in my review of the novel, but I don’t recall anyone else calling McCarthy out for it.
*. Alas, McCarthy’s language was not so easily jettisoned. And so the script is riddled with cornpone pseudo-philosophy like that spouted by the Old Man (Robert Duvall): “Even if you knew what to do, you wouldn’t know what to do.” Heavy, man. Or this from the Man: “All I know is that the child is my warrant. And if he is not the word of God then God never spoke.”
*. There are at least three glaring questions speech like this raises.
*. (1) Who speaks like this? That’s actually an easy one to answer. No one.
*. (2) Who is the Man speaking to? He’s not keeping a journal or recording these words of wisdom for posterity. Hillcoat says that he just felt he needed an interior monologue to get inside the Man’s head. But with such language? Apparently Hillcoat wanted to leave out all of McCarthy’s more “poetic” flights because they would have sounded too self-conscious. Well, guess what?
*. (3) What does it even mean? I can understand the Man’s being responsible for the Boy is what gives his life purpose and meaning, but that’s hardly the same as being the word of God, whatever you may imagine that as meaning. Maybe it has something to do with his “carrying the fire.” I don’t know. I thought it was all hokum.
*. The art direction is fine, but by this point I think I can say I’ve seen enough ruined, post-apocalyptic cities. The film is tonally bleached out to make it look like we’re traveling through a sunless valley of ashes which I suppose is realistic enough (I take it there’s been some kind of environmental catastrophe or nuclear winter) but after a while it just looks dull. It’s The Walking Dead without any colour.
*. The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is one of the most annoying child characters I’ve seen in years. When told to run he freezes and the Man has to drag and carry him to safety. When told to stay put he goes running off by himself. When told to be quiet he can’t stop talking. And what talking! It’s all “Papa!” “Please, Papa!” “No, Papa!” and “Papa, Papa please!” I wanted to kill him half an hour into the movie and he just kept getting worse.
*. No, I didn’t like The Road. In fact, I may have been even more disappointed in it than I was in the novel. We’d been here before — the blasted landscape, the moral testing of what a man will do to protect his family — without all the Biblical cadences and portentous reaching after some mythic status. Some critics, I think, got it right. Ann Hornaday: “It possesses undeniable sweep and a grim kind of grandeur, but it ultimately plays like a zombie movie with literary pretensions.” Kyle Smith: “Zombieland was the same movie with laughs, but if you take away the comedy, what is left? Nothing, on a vast scale.”
*. Put another way, The Road was a hard movie for me to finish watching, and not at all on account of its unrelieved grimmness. What I found unbearable was its derivative character and turgid self-importance (faults I also found with the book). It’s usually described as a moral fable, but what’s the moral? No matter how bad things get you need to take care of your kids and not eat people. A couple of scenes play out well, but after about an hour I only wanted the journey to come to an end.

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