In The Road, John Hillcoat’s long-awaited, big-screen take on a most unlikely bestseller, the world ends with neither a bang nor a whimper. It ends off-screen, due to cataclysmic causes unknown. (Cormac McCarthy, author of the prize-winning novel, is into shuffling death and destruction out of our viewfinders. Just ask Llewelyn Moss.) For a while, of course, it seemed as though all of this celebrated work, about a father and son making their way across post-apocalyptic America, would remain off-screen. A victim of poor test screenings (Pultizer pedigree aside, did the Weinsteins really think they had a crowd-pleaser in this odyssey of horror and sadness?) The Road has been stuck in release-date purgatory, endlessly shuttled from one season to the next, its pending theatrical release appearing about as elusive as a coastal oasis at the edge of the earth. It arrives now, a haggard traveler collapsing into the cold soil of the autumn season, a full year behind schedule. Coming on the heels on 2012, Roland Emmerich’s execrable exercise in Judgment Day pyrotechnics, it feels like a tough and elegant corrective — the End of Days as eulogy, not big dumb celebration. And yet, whose version of this epic poem are we finally, actually laying eyes upon? Is this Hillcoat’s creation or Harvey’s compromise?
One thing’s for sure: the doomsday despair of that premise — surely the bleakest bit of business ever to receive the Oprah stamp of approval, Precious notwithstanding — has been painstakingly preserved. Same unidentified catastrophe, never discussed and scarcely eluded to — there is only a sunny Then and a dreary Now. Same unforgiving world, painted a sickly shade of apocalyptic gray. And same unnamed survivors, a wide-eyed, preadolescent child (newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his weary, ailing father (hard, reliable Viggo Mortenson). Together, Man and Boy roam the vast expanses of a quiet earth, picking through the abandoned remains of civilization, foraging for food and supplies, trying to stay two steps ahead of the “bad guys” (i.e., the same brand of hungry marauders that stalked the margins of McCarthy’s tome). Sun doesn’t shine in this land of the dead, and every day is an uphill struggle for survival. If the cannibals or the cold catch them, the man has a one-way escape plan for he and his offspring: a revolver and two cartridges. Awfully grim stuff for a holiday hopeful, and Hillcoat pulls none of McCarthy’s punches. (At least twice does Viggo aim that trusty pistol at his boy’s temple, contemplating a mercy killing.) What he does do, perhaps with a Weinstein or two standing over his shoulder, is sculpt the meandering malaise of a difficult yarn into something more recognizably movie-ish. On the page, The Road unfolds as a series of daily routines and occurrences, like a survivor’s journal picked out of the wreckage of a forgotten world. There are no chapters, only sporadic episodes. The mood of melancholy is persistent and consistent, an unrelenting march into pitch-black night. Joe Penhall, who adapted McCarthy’s quick read for the screen, faithfully follows the author’s lead, but doesn’t mimic his step. Which is to say, this mostly artful adaptation hews close to the specifics of its sparse source story — plot points both big (woodland bloodletting in a narrow escape) and small (the discovery of the world’s last Coca Cola) — while failing in translating much of its dirge-like beauty.
At least it gets the look right. Hillcoat, an Aussie maverick trying his hand at Hollywood heft, has a little experience with harsh climates and barren backdrops. His last feature, terrific outback oater The Proposition, navigated a similarly chaotic terrain, one caught between the whisper of civilization and the seductive warrior cry of anarchy. Here, using an expert blend of CGI wizardry and practical clutter, Hillcoat paints a plausible portrait of a dying America — no baroque, Mad Max flourishes, just a messy maze of stalled vehicles and burnt-out buildings. No expense was spared in recreating the ashen, crumbling dystopia of McCarthy’s imagination, a desolate landscape beneath a perpetually overcast sky, industrial decay mingling with encroaching wilderness. It’s a perfectly realized world — so much so that one wishes there were more attention lavished on its various nooks and crannies and rusted surfaces, and less on the looming danger of flesh-eating mercenaries. Unlike the Coen Brothers, whose No Country For Old Men boasted fidelity of both body and spirit, Hillcoat doesn’t use his considerable aesthetic prowess to mirror the spartan poetry of McCarthy’s prose. What’s lost in his Hollywood-mandated adaptation is the notion of time spent, the marking of hours and days and weeks under the same dismal sky, survival becoming routine, the traumatic becoming the mundane. Just as Steve McQueen did in Hunger, Hillcoat takes a story whose power lies in the precise rendering of passing time — how that time is filled and how it is felt — and streamlines it into a relatively brisk, conventionally paced cinematic drama. In doing so, he sacrifices the significance of certain events and symbols, most notably the Eastern shoreline as sole beacon of hope on the distant horizon. McCarthy lent this coastal end point the mythic power of dreams — it was a driving force for the twin travelers, the fuel that kept their fire burning, the hypothetical salvation at the end of that long, titular road. To Hillcoat, it’s just where the man and boy are headed, a MacGuffin of a destination, a line of expository dialogue.
Still, though smoother and less scenic, this Road is paved with its own wounded poetry. What Hillcoat gets right — really, poignantly right — is the iron-tight bond between a father and son, the (last?) nuclear family in nuclear winter. Viggo, looking as gaunt and mangy as Guy Pearce did in The Proposition, puts his complicated strain of modern masculinity to good use here. He’s a man hardened by a life in hell, yet softened by the responsibility of guiding his only child through it. McCarthy’s text was at least partially about the daunting burden, the scary conundrum, of raising a child in a world as fucked up as our own. Mortenson channels that conflict, revealing his steely distrust and his irrepressible warmth as opposing halves of the same heavy heart. (He is cynicism and idealism in one. He is legend.) Smit-McPhee, neither cloyingly cute nor overly precocious, behaves exactly as one would expect of a boy growing up in a nightmare neverland: tougher than the average tyke, but still prone to fear, to wonder, to moments of childish irreverence. In a passage torn straight from the novel, father and son stumble upon an abandoned bomb shelter, a holed-up hideaway where they act out a fleeting daydream of domesticity. Happiness is shrewdly linked to the accumulation of creature comforts and nostalgic tokens — in the film’s single moment of pure, deeply moving invention, the man finds a small collection of trinkets and keepsakes that his boy has stowed away. The gesture is clear: when this browbeaten duo sifts through the junk of our dead society, they aren’t just loading up on survival supplies. They’re clinging to these artifacts as proof that better lives were once lived on their frozen earth… and maybe, just maybe, better ones might still be waiting around the corner. (In a way, they’re like WALL-E: the only living souls on New Earth, accountants of lost and found humanity.)
If McCarthy’s novel was primarily a balancing act between hope and despair, this sturdy (if flawed) cinematic distillation finds Hillcoat trying to reconcile the bleak with the cathartic, to negotiate the insurmountable darkness of his material while still meeting the demands of a dramatic entertainment. It’s a tricky task, something of a futile one even, and he stumbles often. (The flashbacks, for example, seem little more than a transparent attempt to shoehorn Charlize Theron’s absentee mother into more scenes, while the ending — underscored as it is by Nick Cave’s achingly beautiful but slightly overbearing composition — teeters the movie over the edge of cheap sentimentality.) Yet if the fire of Cormac’s seminal achievement burns a little less brightly than it did on the page, Hillcoat nevertheless carries it onward, into the hostile environs of multiplexes everywhere.