Thursday, February 12, 2009

"The Road" (2009)

I never cared much for John Hillcoat's THE PROPOSITION, which struck me as a movie that confused violence with psychology. I guess it's fitting that Hillcoat was asked to make a film of Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD - a book which I didn't read, but the synopsis of which indicates a story of bare cruelty run amok in a post-apocalyptic world.

I saw a sneak preview of it tonight in Beekman Theatre, and even though this version is said not to be final, I don't suppose any major changes will be applied to it. It holds up very well, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Hillcoat actually downplaying physical violence and/or torture, building up the characters and their relationships instead.

There is a major challenge in making a film about a world that is doomed for good, because there's little or no chance of a happy conclusion. ON THE BEACH (1959), TESTAMENT (1983), or first 20 minutes of WALL-E (2008) - all of them deal with a world with no hope and with lives about to end collectively (in WALL-E, the Earth is vacant already). THE ROAD makes its task even harder by injecting so much cruelty into its reality. No Jane Alexander to lift up everyone's hearts here: the mother figure played by Charlize Theron commits suicide and leaves her husband and her little kid to take care of themselves.

The plague of THE ROAD's dying world is cannibalism. The Man and the Boy (as McCarthy named them, in a rather Griffithian manner) are running away from organized groups of cannibals ready to devour anyone who has enough humanity left in them not to join the bloody ranks.

Actually, Hillcoat's depiction of cannibal groups is the weakest ascpect of the film. The way they move, the way they leave bloody traces everywhere, the way they're are filmed (hardly a close-up of any of them in the whole film) -- well, they're just like refugee characters from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). Our collective imagination is infected too much by Romero's ghouls for us *not* to think of them while watching THE ROAD. It counts as a weakness, because it makes our emotions easier to deal with - we simply follow our responses from watching any of the LIVING DEAD movies (or, in one sequence in a semi-deserted house, of watching THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE).

Overall, this fairly satisfying movie seems to be too wary of its audiences, and in all bad ways. It is afraid to present itself as too much of a downer, so it's channeling our emotions into familiar sentimental traits.

Anyway, how can one fully respect a movie that manages to include a line like "I sincerely hope for a great nothingness after I die", and then to go straight into product placement of Vitamine Water and Spam...? THE ROAD has all the safety valves firmly in place, and that keeps it from being truly explosive and unsettling.


  1. With due respect, if you have not read McCarthy and if your reference point is Hollywood zombie movies, you may not be the ideal person to review the film. Your sneak preview would be far more alarming if you reported back that there's a worthy heir to "The Late Morning, Mid-Afternoon of the Living Dead" or whatever the latest installment is called.

  2. Let me set this straight: (1) I *liked* the movie. (2) I don't think one has to know the literary source to make a valid criticism of a given aspect of a film. I merely pointed out that the way *Hillcoat* (not McCarthy!) depicts cannibals, owes much to a cinematic tradition initiated by George A. Romero. It's an artistic choice on the part of the director, and - in my opinion - not the most fortunate one.

  3. You are right, of course, about not having to pre-read the source material before you can view (or review) a film, which is being released to stand on its own. And it's a fair bet that the film's producers want to reach a wider audience than those that have read the book.

    Your comments struck a chord with me because in reading the book and thinking about a film treatment, my immediate concern was that it not be viewed or made as just another zombie movie. I would be very surprised if McCarthy owed much, if anything, to George A. Romero, when he wrote the brief but powerful scene that invoked cannibalism. But it was inevitable that once the decision was made to film "The Road" (probably before it was written), it would have to go forward in the ghastly light of Romero's genre of films (and I mean that as a compliment to Romero). On the printed page,in McCarthy's sparing, bleak prose, juxtaposed with the touching descriptions of the main characters, the introduction of cannibalism is jarring for reasons having nothing to do with film genres, and much to do with the prospect of an earth so scalded-over that there was little left to sustain us, but ourselves.

    The film, at least in its current form, apparently tracks McCarthy, who did not describe in detail the cannibals. I can think of few authors better equipped than McCarthy to deliver an action/horror scene as powerful as a kick in the guts, and it is no omission that there is no such scene involving the direct act of cannibalism. By the time a reader reaches the scene where cannibalism is made plain, the realization has dimly dawned that there are depths to the windblown, ashen surfaces of the road, which relate to us all. And the confrontation with the idea of cannibalism is felt almost as a shock of recognition, rather than some lurid and fantastic spectacle of an unspooling, oozing coil of innards.

    It must be a daunting task for a film-maker to address these things, especially because, as you note, Romero and his ilk have left their imprint, which was something that McCarthy did not have to deal with directly in his book.

    "The Road" is short. Here is the opening,

    When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he'd wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

    With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless. He thought the month was October but he wasnt sure. He hadnt kept a calendar for years. They were moving south. There'd be no surviving another winter here.

    When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

  4. Thanks for this! I will definitely try to catch up on reading "The Road". The thing is that my gut-feeling was that the movie didn't succeed in translating McCarthy to the screen, even though I didn't read McCarthy. There is something glossy about the film: the way it depicts the post-apocalyptic landscape is almost postcard-like. I would love to see the movie more visceral, more immediate - and not realying on generic conventons so much.