We’ve Been Down This Road Before

11/25/2009 4:00 AM |

The Road
Directed by John Hillcoat

The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men made adapting Cormac McCarthy look easy, but Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses proved just how tough it can be. And so while it probably sounded like a cinch adapting The Road, McCarthy’s Oprah-endorsed novel about a father and son hoofing it to the coast, post-apocalyptically, in truth it was always going to be a challenge dramatizing the book’s allegorical landscape—let alone its delicate central relationship.

McCarthy’s descriptions of America’s decimated countryside following some implied nuclear event (“cauterized terrain,” “ashen scabland”) are unhelpfully amorphous, if evocative on the page. And yet director John Hillcoat, cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and production designer Chris Kennedy have succeeded in creating the bombed-out, monotone mis-en-scene McCarthy described. Shot in multiple outdoor locations in rural Pennsylvania and in Oregon, The Road, visually as well as morally, is gray on gray. There’s some egregious digital fudging, particularly in the backdrops, and the supporting cast could have been styled a little less after The Road Warrior via Deliverance. But mostly, the wasteland Hillcoat and his team have concocted feels palpable and immersive.

It is in their other task—in realizing flesh and blood characters—that the filmmakers stumble. As he demonstrated in his previous feature, The Proposition, a rakish 2005 Western set in the Australian Outback, Hillcoat has an uncanny ability to get flimsy, oddly unaffecting performances out of very good actors, and he’s done it again here. To his credit, Viggo Mortensen, as the father, throws in intimations of madness. And Kodi Smit-McPhee is fine as a “weirded out” pre-adolescent, though he’s no Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun. But Hillcoat interrupts what should be an intimate story with frequent flashbacks to/dreams of Mortensen’s dead wife, played by Charlize Theron, bringing her familiar gaudy emoting. These short passages were ancillary to McCarthy’s novel, but Hillcoat lingers on them, much the way in The Proposition he kept cutting away from his lead outlaws to scenes from the sheriff’s marriage.

The Road comes to an end by quoting the final scene of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows—as did, coincidentally or not, Spielberg’s aforementioned Empire of the Sun and Haneke’s Time of the Wolf, another superior riff on la fin du monde. Which is to say that the boy, having undergone some desperate transformation, makes a decision in close-up. It’s a moment that should be way more moving than it is. Hillcoat has made a handsome science fiction film, but a hollow one, a prestige 2012 for the Academy’s consideration.

Opens November 25