Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Road (2009, John Hillcoat)

John Hillcoat's take on Cormac McCarthy's The Road shows the director focussing on family ties once again after 2005's The Proposition - his bloody western of sorts that owed somewhat to not only Conrad's Heart of Darkness but also McCarthy's notorious Blood Meridian. 

The Road is McCarthy's latest offering, charting the love and determining survival of a father/son relationship in a post-apocalyptic setting. The book is utterly gripping, often brutal, at times heart-breaking, and infinitely bleak; McCarthy's work has always lingered on the macabre, his stripped down matter-of-fact approach to is prose has made his writing instantly recognisable and unique in style. His work is often oozing with nihilistic distain for Man's heinous capabilities on others, most prominently in Blood Meridian's unrivalled massacres or the unfathomable degradation in Child Of God. But as a writer he's not a one trick mule at all,  one just has to look at his award winning Border Trilogy to see his ability in writing intricate characters full of longing and love, good things don't always befall on these characters and their stories but McCarthy's acknowledgement of human affection is there none the less. The Road marks the authors most intensely bleak vision but also his most touching, a gripping read if there ever was one that never loses its dreaded atmosphere for a moment. In the Godless world in which it takes place the book shows mankind destroying its remnants,destroying itself from the inside through a young boy we and his father are shown a pure kindness once lost inside us all. Despite only knowing the world in it's destructive state this boy still sees good where others disillusioned from better days gone by cannot. The novel only boasts two main characters with occasional flashbacks to a third - the man's wife, the boy's mother whom he never met. Has this adaptation managed to translate the novel's severity, to convey the gruelling often hopeless survival of our two protagonists? Most definitely, yet despite some slight shortcomings it's hard to imagine such problematic material handled any sharper.

The key to the film was always to aptly create the painfully affecting relationship of father and son; Viggo Mortensen throws himself into his role as he does with all roles, his weak skeletal figure harsh on the eyes, genuinely starvation setting in. Mortensen being exceptional in his role isn't a surprise though is it? The casting of the son is the real revelation here, child performers can often be problematic due to lack of experience and being hard to direct; Kodi Smit-McPhee is beyond impressive, always genuine with never a forced moment. Given the harsh overwhelming premise of the story McPhee is never out of his depth, a rare find and the sturdy foundation of the film keeping it tall and strong. As the two trundle along down the road avoiding occasional cannibal hunters, the everyday survival and  bounding love between the two helps keep the film afloat, a story this drab with only two centralised characters was going to rely entirely on chemistry.

The film divulges several times into segments showing us life before the apocalypse, a man (Mortensen) and his expecting wife (Charlize Theron) at first live in serenity before knowledge of end destroys what they had. Theron's portrayal of a woman crumbling under the pressure of bringing a life into a barren world is both heartbreaking and unnerving, her heart and mind gradually deteriorating, torturing her husband's unconditional love for her. Given slight screen-time Theron makes for a truly memorable figure adding further dramatic weight and tragedy to the already overwhelming desolation. Like the novel Hillcoat's film never hints at what induced the world's end, though environmentalist warnings could easily be drawn from McCarthy's tale he never points fingers at anything, offering slight comments that barely register as clues. The story's lack of desire to explain and judge is a refreshing exclusion keeping the story alive without preaching and needless hindsight.

Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography delivers a near colourless palette, full of shades of grey as ash still falls from the sky and at times so devoid of colour you'd swear to it being a black & white feature. Nick Cave delivers another fitting score which although less memorable than previous work seems slightly forced at times, the placement of the music is more problematic than the body itself. The use of the often stunning score is often excessive as it looks to draw out emotions from scenes that need help, the paring of Mortensen and McPhee is more than enough alone.

As a whole the film feels slightly streamlined but this is unavoidable given the circumstances. This won't be a problem for those not familiar with the novel but for those that have, you gruel every step of the way with father and son by the end feeling you've been through hell with them, making for a exhausting but cathartic experience. Despite nearly two hours in length this just isn't possible with a longer version not being the answer. The novel's essence is firmly intact  however firmly delivering the same emotions and themes present, though less powerful than its source this adaptation is respectful and   meets expectation. Any detracting remarks could be made to any cinematic rendition of great literary works as something is always lost in the process, but The Road makes for a great filmic achievement whether you're a fan of McCarthy's masterpiece or not.