I read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize-winning book The Road when it was first published. It was one of the first novels I read upon my return to Dublin and it royally pissed me off. See, I’d written about four chapters of a book that — had I continued it — would have been described as derivative at best, and a total rip-off at worst. In my version, a boy and his mother were walking across a post-apocalyptic America in the hope of somehow getting a boat that would take them to Ireland. I vividly recall the moment, not far into The Road, when my rising frustration erupted into a bellow of “Fuck it!”
I threw the book across the room and went to see if anything of my own work could be salvaged. It couldn’t. Not only were the plots too similar, but — once I’d finally calmed down and read the whole thing — the central themes turned out to be almost identical. It’s fortunate that I hadn’t got further, I suppose.
Anyhoo, that’s neither here nor there. Having just watched the film, it’s that I want to discuss. And it’s a film that merits discussion. As regular readers of my writing will be aware, I believe that humanity is approaching a crisis… may indeed be in the early stages of it. I don’t believe we’ve reached the point where disaster and complete collapse are inevitable, though. I feel that the sooner we begin planning and implementing steps to avoid calamity, the more chance we have of preventing the sort of bleak outcome envisioned by McCarthy.
Our writers and film-makers — artists of any kind — are often the best weather-vanes our culture has got. Fiction about disasters, whether on paper or celluloid, is certainly nothing new, but the huge amount of it over the past few years seems, to me at least, to be an obvious response to our collective anxieties about Climate Change, peak oil… unsustainability in general. Storm clouds are gathering on our horizon and this has not gone unnoticed.
None of which is meant to imply that the grim and very upsetting picture of the future painted by McCarthy and John Hillcoat (the director of the film adaptation) is likely to happen, or even that I think it’s a genuine possibility. The dark view of humanity presented in The Road isn’t one I necessarily share. Certainly people are capable of even the worst of the atrocities described in the story, but I tend to question the proportion of “bad guys” to “good guys” (to use the parlance of the film). In both book and film we are presented with a world where the people determined to keep the fire of human decency alive are vastly outnumbered by those who have resorted to savagery. It’s my belief, and fervent hope, that this is a pessimistic assessment of the human soul.
The film itself is an amazing piece of work. From the opening scene of vibrant greens, yellows and reds — trees and flowers soon to be extinguished — to the dark browns and greys that characterise the blasted landscape of the majority of the film, The Road is never less than visually impressive. “Visually impressive” may seem like a strange way to describe a film that draws almost exclusively from a palette of washed-out grey, but there’s a haunting quality to the cinematography that prevents it from ever being dull to the eye.
The basic plot revolves around a father and son (The Man and The Boy) attempting to make their way south to the coast. The planet has all but died and almost everyone who remains has resorted to cannabilism to eke out some extra time. The Man is played by Viggo Mortensen in yet another role that marks him out as a truly accomplished actor. He was brilliant in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and even more mesmeric here as a man torn between his willingness to do anything to protect his son and his desire to offer the boy a glimpse of something other than the ugly brutality of the world they find themselves in. He wants to raise his son to be good and decent and noble, but is aware that those traits might well turn out to be liabilities… could even get him killed some day. In one of the central scenes of the film, the boy rebukes his father by telling him that he can no longer tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.
Indeed, we soon come to realise that just as the father is trying to teach his son to be one of the good guys, it is only through this very effort that he himself retains a grip on goodness. Without the need to provide an example to the boy, we suspect that Mortensen’s character would himself be lost; if not to brutality then certainly to death.
The young actor who plays Viggo Mortensen’s son — Kodi Smit-McPhee — is probably the weak link in the film. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a criticism of the kid. He truly and honestly does as good a job as any actor his age could do with the role and he certainly doesn’t constantly irritate the way so many child actors do. But the fact of the matter is, the kind of performance required by the role isn’t one that any child has the emotional maturity to achieve. As I say though, he does as well as anyone his age could and never spoils things.
Quite aside from anything else, Mortensen’s something of a method actor and his haggard looks suggest several weeks of borderline malnutrition. In the one scene where we see the boy’s body, his shrunken torso is clearly the result of some clever CGI… subjecting him to the kind of dietary regime that left Mortensen looking genuinely underfed would be nothing short of child abuse, and this is revealed in his obviously well-fed face. Again though, that’s hardly the kid’s fault.
One of the two most unpleasant images of the book was omitted from the film, but the other was retained (albeit only briefly). Indeed I was quite surprised that the film so rarely strays from the book. On the one hand this has made it a good deal better than almost any of Hollywood’s other apocalypse movies. On the other hand, it ensured that the relentlessly grim atmosphere of McCarthy’s original seeps out through the screen and leaves you feeling rather drained and mildly depressed after watching it.
That said, I’d recommend The Road to fans of good, thoughtful cinema. It’s dark, horrific at times and rarely offers a smile (there’s a single blackly cynical line from Robert Duvall’s character that provides perhaps the only humour in the entire film). Overall, The Road will leave you feeling quite deflated and perhaps even a little troubled. But for all that, it’s a fine film that never betrays the original vision of the book. And how often does one of them come along?