Cormac McCarthy is an author it can be hard to get a handle on. He is unquestionably talented, as his prose can be spectacularly beautiful, but he can also be absolutely impenetrable when the mood strikes him. The Road is probably his most accessible work after No Country For Old Men, as evidenced by its selection for Oprah’s book club and its subsequent best-seller status. I’m not sure a book like Blood Meridian would have the same market penetration.
Because it’s a relatively straightforward narrative — again, like No Country For Old Men — The Road makes for good source material for a movie. Not a feel-good movie, but a solid one from a storytelling perspective. It should not be surprising, then, that The Road the film is oftentimes as effective as its inspiration.
Normally I spend a hundred words or so in these reviews summarizing the set-up of the movies I’m writing about, but The Road is so simple that the set-up encompasses the whole thing. Maybe that robs some of the joy of discovery from the film, maybe not. You’ll have to decide.
Anyway, in The Road it is some ten years after a terrible calamity has stricken the world. More profound than a nuclear apocalypse and not as workaday as a zombie plague, this cataclysmic turn of events has left the planet completely devoid of animals, living plants and (mostly) people. Viggo Mortensen plays a nameless survivor who has a young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) he has raised completely on his own after his wife’s death. We meet the two of them on the titular road, traveling with all their belongings in a battered shopping cart, scavenging food where they may and trying to avoid the horrible, cannibalistic bad guys that patrol regularly.
That’s it. That’s the whole movie. Of course there are wrinkles to all of this, because McCarthy’s intention was not to weave a genre apocalypse like the one seen in The Road Warrior, but to explore what it means to be a civilized human being in a world where such things as civilization have no real meaning anymore. As Mortensen’s character puts it, he and his son are “carrying the fire,” and they will not stoop to cannibalism or other destructive, immoral behavior just to survive another day. Your enjoyment (if that’s the right word) of The Road depends pretty heavily on how receptive you are to such subtleties. At no point does Mortensen expostulate on the meaning of life or humanity or anything like that. Instead you receive the message by the example the man and his son set in their quest to find a better life somewhere, anywhere.
I have a fairly young son (he’s 11), but his autistic condition gives him the outlook of a child much younger. Consequently it was impossible for me to watch The Road without putting myself and my son in a similar situation. At one point Mortensen’s character demonstrates for his son the best way to commit suicide using the pistol they have — a pistol with only two bullets left, meaning hard decisions have to be made — and I was made extremely emotional by the thought of having to kill my own son to save him from a terrible fate, or of my son being placed in such dire straits that the only recourse was suicide. I don’t think my son even understands the concept of death, let alone bringing it upon himself.
This is way of telling you that parents with young children are likely to be more profoundly affected by The Road than those without. I know that Cormac McCarthy is very close with his son and I have no doubt that he was thinking of his own relationship when writing the material that would eventually inform the movie. It’s powerful stuff, as is the director’s decision to really go to town with the apocalyptic visuals of the picture. The Road is terribly bleak, almost hopeless, despite its message of “carrying the fire,” and it’s rare to find a Hollywood production that’s willing to take that sort of route. Feel-good filmmaking is much more in demand.
John Hillcoat, the director, clearly knows what he’s doing in The Road. The film was shot in Pennsylvania, but the landscape is so desolate that it might as well be the far side of the Moon. I don’t find myself wondering about movie trickery very often, especially since pretty much everything is done with CGI these days, but I did think about the work that must have gone into rendering a dead world with such fidelity to the source material. McCarthy left the appearance of the man and his son completely up to the readers’ imaginations, so Mortensen and Smit-McPhee fit the bill perfectly. If it weren’t for the generally subtle nature of the storytelling, something that’s essentially lost on most filmmakers today, it’d be easy to think that The Road was simply a truly remarkable independent film that decided to take a lot of chances. As it is it’s still taking chances, but it’s built upon the solid foundation of McCarthy’s book.
The Road also has an extremely pared-down cast. With the exception of the marauders that haunt the road and a few others, the man and his son are pretty much the only people in the movie. Long stretches pass where it’s just the two of them, struggling to survive even as they starve slowly to death, and it’s a credit to Mortensen and Smit-McPhee that they’re able to carry off the weighty acting duties required to make those quiet interludes worthwhile. Lesser actors might be inclined to go big in an attempt to fill up all that empty space, but Mortensen and Smit-McPhee give lean, unsparing life to their characters without ever compromising the material.
Despite everything I’ve said, I’m not sure I can wholly recommend The Road to everyone. As I pointed out earlier, you have to be in the mood to receive the film’s understated theme and it would also be helpful if you have children so that it will all seem that much more vivid. I can easily see some audiences being bored by the goings-on, spare as they are. The Road takes work on the part of the viewer. Those looking for easy entertainment are advised to seek elsewhere.