Kodi Smit-McPhee and Viggo Mortensen in The Road

Movie Review: The Road

The Road is a walk-through a post-apocalyptic landscape of rags, grey skies, and desperate survivors eating the flesh of other survivors. Is it a coincidence that The Road opened in New York the night before Thanksgiving?

Cormac McCarthys grim spare novel of the same title, The Road, from which the film is adapted, is a meditation on the crises that can face humankind, and on the horrifying ways that characters in extreme situations can adapt when an apocalypse fails to exterminate all of them. Suffering isnt ennobling here. Think of The Night of the Living Dead.

McCarthys book is often described as his masterpiece, perhaps because it piles the horror higher than ever before in its portrait of a devastated world . Even so, its a breeze, compared to John Hillcoats long morbid dirge of a film. Watching The Road, you keep thinking of what Hillicoat might say in his defense: “this hurts me more than it hurts you.”

Viggo Mortensen in "The Road"

Viggo Mortensen in "The Road"

After sitting through the entire thing, I hope hes right. As characters loot, vomit and cannibalize each other, you might wonder why The Road is a commercial movie, and why its distributor might think that it could make money on such a project.

Lets not forget that the previous adaptation of a McCarthy novel, No Country for Old Men, directed by the Coen Brothers, won four Oscars and ended up earning  $162 million worldwide. Also, the Coens added their own odd touch to McCarthys story, and put a bizarre haircut on Javier Bardem, who played a killer stalking his prey in the desert, throwing an improbable element of quirky humor into an otherwise solemn tale, and throwing the audience off-balance.  For once, a film based on a serious book by a serious author was a popular hit.

The world of movies is a world of formulas and sequels. Im sure someone thought the audience was primed for another Cormac McCarthy saga, particularly since Oprah Winfrey made a pilgrimage to New Mexico to interview the author. Cataclysm might have seemed like a good idea for yet another film, given the freefall of the economy. Maybe it should have been set in Dubai, instead of in the American heartland.

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Viggo Mortensen in "The Road"

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Viggo Mortensen in "The Road"

The Road does have the bona-fide star Viggo Mortensen in the lead as a father trudging through the countryside with his young son.  Yet, in this film that doesnt hesitate to show unspeakable horror – we even see a basement full of body parts and frightened naked captives awaiting slaughter and dinner —  dont expect the kind of full-frontal nudity of Mortenson that you saw of him in Eastern Promises by David Cronenberg. Dont even expect to see him looking like anything but a tall version of Charles Manson.  Charlize Theron, another draw at the box office, plays Mortensens wife and the boys mother, but we dont see enough of her in opening scenes and a few tender flashbacks for her presence to make much difference.

Thats not to say that there isnt humor in The Road, although the humor is unintentional. In one scene on a beach with Mortenson and his son (played with whining annoyance by Kodi Smit-McPhee), the father is shot with an arrow by a terrified man in a house nearby. After putting the archer away with a flare gun which sets him on fire, Mortenson pulls out the arrow, with the appropriate groans and grimaces, and closes up the wound with a stapler that just happens to be nearby. For those of us who saw Anti-Christ by Lars von Trier, it calls to mind Willem Dafoe freeing himself of a huge wheel that Charlotte Gainsbourg has bolted to his leg. Its intended to shock you, but it makes you laugh.

The Road was shot mostly in Pennsylvania on a budget of $20 million, parts of it in state parks there. Other parts were shot in real disaster sites – New Orleans and Mount St. Helens. The settings that were appropriate for the story in Pennsylvania could drive tourists away.

And reviews of the film could drive off the audience. If youre drawn to The Road, go back to the novel, and wait until the marathon trek through the apocalypse is available in a format with a function than can speed it up.

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  1. Brewster says:

    Dreary movie? Yes indeed but what exactly would David D’Arcy expect in a film adaptation that follows the book so very closely? Also, I’m not sure where he finds humor in the arrow removal scene. I guess he thinks it’s cool to be snarky or something. The only scene/s remotely humorous involved those where Robert Duvall was involved. I’m surprised he didn’t mention Duvall as he’s as bonafide a star as Mortensen or Theron.