The Road is a movie that I enjoyed a lot more than I expected to. I’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning novel (one of the best books I’ve read in a decade, and I’m a pretty voracious reader by most standards), and the bar set by the Coen Bros. with their Oscar-winning film of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (pretty much a flawless movie, in my estimation) is so high that it’s effectively unreachable. Not helping director John Hillcoat and Joe Penhall is the fact that the source material is actually far less film-friendly than the more plot-driven No Country. But I was very pleasantly surprised by their version of The Road, which, while it doesn’t approach the perfection of No Country for Old Men, is still a very good movie that manages to hit many of the book’s emotional beats without being too depressing or bleak. There’s a core of hope to the book that the filmmakers manage to tap into, and it makes The Road much, much more than an overly serious riff on The Road Warrior.
The Road, if you’re unfamiliar with the book, follows a father and son in post-apocalyptic America. The cause of the catastrophe is never explained, nor are the characters’ histories explored beyond a handful of golden-hued flashbacks, which Hillcoat and Penhall expanded considerably from the even more vague flashbacks in the novel. McCarthy’s book is less proper prose than a sort of tone poem about humanity, and the plot – The Man and The Boy (never named) are making their way south in the hopes of finding a more friendly climate on the coast – is almost non-existent. The Road is basically a collection of sequences of the Man and the Boy encountering other survivors (most of them bad; the death of just about every plant and animal on the planet has led many to turn to cannibalism), and Hillcoat and Penhall sort of stumble by trying to serve two masters: the novel and the moviegoing audience. The biggest problem with The Road – and it’s hardly a major one, and will really only be noticed by people who’ve read the book – is that it sort of falls halfway between being an incredibly loyal adaptation (à la No Country) and a more Hollywood-style revamp (i.e. with beefed-up action and a more traditional narrative arc). It doesn’t ruin the movie, and thankfully Hillcoat and Penhall err on the side of being faithful to McCarthy’s novel, changing the structure considerably but otherwise staying very true to the book. (Hillcoat says in his commentary that McCarthy approved of the final film.)
But The Road lives and dies by its actors, and Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McPhee are both incredible as the Man and the Boy. McPhee, in particular, is fantastic, and I look forward to seeing him in the otherwise ill-advised upcoming remake of the mind-blowingly great Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In (read me gush about it here and here). Mortenson is just so reliably good at this point in his career that I can’t even come up with anything clever to say about his performance. He’s simply awesome in what’s clearly a very challenging role.
In addition to the leads, there’s also a handful of other great actors who turn up in tiny roles (often just a single scene), including Charlize Theron, glimpsed in flashbacks as the Woman, whose emotional scenes with a heartbroken Mortenson are almost difficult to watch. Guy Pearce and Michael K. Williams (best known as Omar from The Wire) also turn up, but it was Robert Duvall who blew everyone else away as an old blind man. His scene with Mortenson and McPhee at the campfire was, for me, easily the best scene in the entire film.
Beyond the lineup of stellar actors, The Road really benefits from Hillcoat’s direction. The Australian first grabbed me with his Outback western The Proposition (which starred Pearce), probably the grimiest, dirtiest film I’ve ever seen. His gritty visual style is perfect for the ash-covered world of The Road. The crew also used mostly real locations (much of it was shot in and around Pittsburgh), as opposed to using CGI to create the film’s desolate, blasted landscapes, and the results make the movie seem that much more real. Hillcoat also does an excellent job of ramping up the tension – I don’t remember the last time I saw a movie where the mere fact that there was a person in the distance could inspire bowel-clenching terror – and The Road is as scary as any horror movie.
As for the DVD itself, there’s a commentary track from Hillcoat that’s a little dry, but he’s charmingly self-conscious about his lack of experience doing commentaries, and once he gets comfortable he provides lots of interesting insights into the process of bringing The Road to the screen, including the process of involving McCarthy. There’s also a pretty good making-of featurette, as well as a small collection of deleted and extended scenes.
Overall The Road really surpassed my guarded expectations, and while it’s not best-film-of-the-year material, it’s emotionally involving without being too much of a downer, filled with incredible performances and some really striking imagery. The Road is a refreshingly mature, grown-up post-apocalyptic movie with genuine heart.