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The Road

A 2009 film film based on the book of the same name.

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The Road -- Disappointing, poorly conceived, inconsistent

  • Oct 13, 2010
I do not have a problem separating a movie derived from another source—typically a book. I’ve been a book collector and heavy reader all my life; similarly, I am a heavy user of movies. So, fully understanding they are different media I can usually value each outside of the other. Of course I make comparisons—it’s impossible not to do so. I loved the book and film Fight Club but the movie was significantly more powerful and a bit funnier. John Huston’s The Dead mimicked James Joyce’s short story so closely that I followed along in the book and saw very little deviation (something that still amazes me). Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix . . . I loathed the book but liked the movie. I had no trouble in any of these examples determining the merits of one outside of its companion.

The Road has proved so difficult to separate that I’m actually turning to a review to help sort it out rather than writing the it with the ideas already sorted. Part of this process will be a vicious, post review explanation of the utter failure of the movie to capture the true salience of the book.

A few years after an apocalypse that leaves the planet (or at least the United States) in a permanently gray-skyed barren coldness, a nameless father and son scavenge for food and fuel in an already picked over world. They push a shopping cart holding all the true non-perishable necessities they had (blankets, containers for water and fuel and the like). Their most valuable item, though, is a revolver with 2 bullets. Shortly after the opening the father shows the boy how to use the gun to commit suicide “Just like I showed you.” So it is a continuing lesson instead of the first one.

From here it is a mean bildungs-movie: we meet them in high hill country; their goal is to reach the ocean. The pair run into situations that should curdle anyone’s blood. The boy is almost killed to become food for a group of thugs. Here the father must use one of his bullets to save the child. They barely escape a basement containing a starving hoard of people about to become food for a group of well-fed cannibals—and then barely escape the cannibals.

The boy struggles against his father on a couple of occasions to try to be nice to the few individual travelers they meet or just see. He has trouble trying to reconcile a moral sense of compassion the father tries carefully to instill against the harshness required to survive in a world so defined by scarcity that cannibalism is a common option. For instance the boy offers food to a wandering and nearly blind man, then convinces the father that he share food and fire that night. Then, after they reach the coast a man steals all of their stuff; once they find the man pulling their loaded cart the father makes him surrender not only all of their stuff but all of his clothes. This despite the boy screaming that his father leave the thief at least his clothes so he won’t freeze to death.

During this trek, the father has flashback memories and dreams of his wife as she decides and then tries to explain abandoning her husband and son. Her despair being so great that she is willing to walk, unarmed, into the dark—not all of the flashbacks are of this bleak action; some of them are of idyllic happy times that seem the kind unreal that only dreams make.

I will leave the ending alone (even in the post-review rant).

The acting is inconsistent, and at times embarrassing. About fifteen minutes into the movie is the pivotal scene where the father (Viggo Mortensen) has to make a crack shot to save his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from the thug—the bullet hits the man’s head only just outside the boy’s ear leaving the boy petrified and covered in blood. The father carries the son running through the forest to evade the thugs bent on even more food than their now fallen comrade (meal). They are able to do so and the father washes the son’s hair in a creek. This scene wrenched all of my organs to the stripping point. Mortensen holds a McPhee who is crying in a high-pitched spasm of tears that sounded more real than any I can remember hearing before. The scene and three others show that the pair really do have serious talent. The problem is all of the space between these moments. During the rest of the movie I get no sense that the pair share the kind of love that I hope no one ever has to form.

With regard to the rest of the cast, Charlize Theron plays the mother. The character isn’t presented as complex, so while she does a fine job, an actress of her caliber need not have been cast—more on this below. Robert Duval plays the nearly blind wanderer. He is always good for an esoteric speech about the nature of the larger and nearly impossible to grasp concepts, so he plays his brief part quite well. All other actors with speaking parts are acceptable.

The structure makes the pace jerky. The acting already made it hard for me to invest as much in the father and son as I should have. The important flashbacks are of the mother’s explanation of why she is going to leave and her regret that she didn’t have the guts to kill at least her husband before their bullets dwindled to just two. Beyond the pacing issues the scattershot flashback method makes it hard for me to form what should be a very complex emotional palate with regards to her actions. Instead, I’m more annoyed than anything else.

This choppy editing is a bleakness cop out. There is nothing pleasant in the film so the only reason I can think of to break the movie into so many pieces is to spread out the spikes of the near hopelessness thinly enough to allow the audience to avoid having to face the full horror. I doubt too many would come to this film unwilling to process the true worst that man has to offer. In other words, we are all adults and can handle the topic without padded guardrails.

Director John Hillcoat did a great job creating the full milieu of the world wrecked and twisted in the extreme, but without overdoing it. From a technical point of view, making a world broken but not to the point where it could not sustain at least some life is not an easy balancing act. And it is the only unequivocally good thing I can say about the film.

Obviously I do not recommend it. In the final review analysis, it is just too inconsistent and sophomoric.

Rant—feel totally free to skip it. I will be examining two themes present in the book but mishandled in the film: inhumanity/humanity and religious/moral. There will also be a couple of lengthy quotes from the novel to illustrate what to me is extremely important and totally mangled in the film.

I have never been so disappointed by a movie before. I tried to prep myself for that possibility when I found out there was going to be a film adaptation. First, I thought that it would have serious problems drawing an audience given the unrelenting dread. Second, because the director’s CV was so short and lacking. He’d only done two films prior The Proposition (2005) and To Have & to Hold (1996). I can say that there is little evidence that he did much practicing or professional development in the nine years between those two movies. The Road needed David Fincher (Se7en) or Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream). Mr. Fincher is a master of scenery; Se7en was grimy and claustrophobic so that I felt dirty and panicky long after I left the theater. Mr. Aronofsky’s interpretations create realistic and totally unhealthy emotional conditions that left the audience emotionally bankrupt.

Despite the fact that McCarthy’s novels contain themes that typically cannot be translated to the screen, http://www1.epinions.com/review/Book_The_Roa...hy/content_273021963908 has a direct emotional intensity that could translate to the screen. Thematically, the focus on tiny humanity against massive animalistic chaos is not too big to take on and is common enough for most of us to have run into before.

The most obvious problem I had was with the screenplay. All any director would have to do with regards to the script is to write the name of the character next to the piece of dialog. With regards to style, No Country for Old Men is written in the same sparse style with roughly 75% dialog. The Coen Brothers took some liberties with their film adaptation but the spirit of No Country ’s story was controlled and I can think of no change significant enough in their film that would modify major portions of the story.

There are two aspects in particular that essentially crushed the story for me: pulled punches with regards to the violence/meanness and deciding to make the moral and ethical issues specifically Christian.

The shooting to save the boy and the scenes of the well-fed cannibals and their “meat locker” were top-notch interpretations. But they have to represent what is a far larger heap of human horrors and they are not enough. My anger here is not because I have a fetish for violence—far from it. One of McCarthy’s talents is to be able to render extreme cruelty in an almost nauseating artful language; the stomach churns while the brain is wowed (at least for me). Leaving out so many of these items thins the story nearly to artlessness.

Two scenes were either left out or seem obviously curtailed. The curtailed event is a scene where a mother and daughter run through an open field being chased by thugs. The camera pulls away before the thugs finish closing the gap; this is not an acceptable example of fear by implication, it was simply a bad storytelling decision. There is a specific thing I call the circus of misery that had been part of the film at some point (stills released early showed it):

(McCarthy does not use quotes for dialog or apostrophes for contractions, I have added these grammatical niceties for a slightly easier read).

“An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the wrist. Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon. They clanked past, marching with a swaying gait like wind-up toys. Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks. “Shh, he said. Shh.” The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of trucksprings in some crude forge upcountry. The boy lay with his face in his arms, terrified. They passed two hundred feet away, the ground shuddering lightly. Tramping. Behind them came the wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked to each other.

“Were they the bad guys?” [boy]
“Yes, they were the bad guys.” [father]
“There’s a lot of them, those bad guys.”
“Yes there are. But they’re gone.”

This circus of misery and the way it is presented is, in some ways, more significant than the cannibal house. Each shows significant amounts of organization and control. Each has this control being entirely barbaric. The difference is a stark separation between physical survival and the humanity that the father tries to maintain and pass on. Curiosity and the standard need for food led them to the house where they were nearly killed by both prey and predator; the most basic of animal behaviors. They have no contact with the lesser danger and we have to infer by the way the dialog is structured in the section above that the boy is getting a confirmation that he and his father are the good guys because they are in direct opposition to the bad guys. As simplistic as that might sound, this tone is what makes the book’s emotional complexity work.

The Road is a moral tale, not a religious one; in the film, though some of the narration is specifically Christian. Also, the pair sleeps in a church at a point near the end—no church is mentioned in the novel, not even passing one on their way to the coast. I don’t believe this to be picking nits. Humanity, I argue, is the controlling theme and morality is a huge facet. The novel does not name any belief, the film does. There is no specific sense of the Jewish concept of justice, the Christian belief in forgiveness or the Muslim idea of fidelity. The abstraction here is kindness.

I can see how someone can interpret a couple of moments as being specifically Christian, but a slightly longer glance will undo it.

After the pair find the bomb shelter still fully stocked, the boy asked if they should thank the people that left it:

“Do you think we should thank the people?” [boy]
“The people?” [father]
“The people who gave us all this.”
“Well. Yes, I guess we could do that.”
“Will you do it?” [boy]
“Why don’t you?” [father]
“I don’t know how.”
“Yes you do. You know how to say thank you.”
The boy sat staring at his plate. He seemed lost. “… Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff … and we hope you are in heaven with God.”
He looked up. “Is that okay?” He said.
“Yes. I think that’s ok.”

The second instance is the conversation the father has with Ely—the blind man they meet.

“I guess God would know [if you were the last person left]. Is that it?” [father]
“There is no God.” [Ely]
“There is no God and we are his prophets.”

“What if I said that [the boy]’s a God?” [father]

The old man shook his head. “I’m past all that now. Have been for years. Where men can’t live gods fare no better.”

In the first instance, the father refuses to join in, actually placing the entire burden on the boy. Regardless of this, the lesson isn’t religious, it’s simple etiquette, but somewhat in reverse. The boy reminds the father who seems caught by surprise. There is no instruction and the follow up “I think that’s ok” has the same tone that etiquette lessons tend to rather than something ceremonial.

With Ely, things are, to me, even more obvious. He’a a “The End Is Nigh” doom-teller with no particular paradise or punishment; his doom is that he lived past his prediction. What he says is as incomprehensible as a koan but with no new understanding that follows this Buddhist rite. His faith is eschatology—only the end of things not the why or the what’s next. But Mr. Hillcoat added specifically Christian dialog to Ely’s speech. The script also gives Ely a son and for absolutely no discernible reason.

I really did want to like it, but since it failed in nearly all aspects the most positive thing I have to say about it is that it was sloppy. It had a chance to become a minor metaphor but did not even rise to the level of a base simile.

The feeling I got leaving the theater was similar to one I had twenty years ago leaving Edward Scissorhands; Tim Burton passed up the opportunity to do the same poetic action. He framed the film as a campy high school angst film with a crappy ending. In 1990, AIDS was still AIDS; it had not fallen into the HIV naming convention and the three drug cocktail that has been largely effective was six years away. Edward cannot touch or be touched in all but the most careful of ways. Beyond just AIDS, however, we were becoming a society of more insular, homogenous groups. Edward could have been a metaphor for the late millennial distrust. Father and son in the movie version of The Road could have been representative of the anxiety we have toward what appears to be endless war and an unbridgeable, binary social divide. Instead they are just two characters in search of shampoo.

On a totally personal aside of arbitrary milestones, if my count is correct, this is my 300th movie review.


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October 30, 2010
Very thought-provoking write up. Thanks!
More The Road (movie) reviews
review by . June 23, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
*** out of ****     "The Road" begins a bleak and depressing vision, and stays that way up until the end. That is how Cormac McCarthy's novel was written; that is how the film adaptation is made. There was no other way to make the film. If it could not be both visually and emotionally bleak, then it just wouldn't have been "The Road". In my heart, I know that this is the best they could do when it comes to an adaptation of McCarthy's story, which I treasure oh-so-much. "The Road" …
review by . October 30, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
A post-apocalyptic suspense film that loses its steam a third of the way through. From the outset, it will have you on your seat, heart-thumping, anxious to know what danger lies around the next bend for our all-too-human father and son duo.      The gritty style and viewing angles, accompanied with the impeccably apt score immerses the viewer into this desolate world, rife with murderers and cannibals, as well as the atypical enemy: falling dead trees. A Book of Eli similarity …
review by . May 27, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Parental Panic and Fear in This Barren, Dead Wasteland...
   “THE ROAD” is a film about a post-apocalyptic world that is based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. Directed by John Hillcoat with a screenplay written by John Penhall portrays the journey of a father and a son as they trudge this barren wasteland, looking for a destination and keeping a flicker of hope. Now I haven’t read the book so I cannot judge this film as to well it compares to its source material, but as always, I can judge a film as to well …
Quick Tip by . December 17, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
As far as post-apocalyptic stories go, it's hard to introduce anything new or compelling at this point, since almost everything's been done before. However, this film manages to be very compelling and memorable. The film doesn't function as a science fiction film, but rather as an emotionally complex father and son survival story.      The Road takes place in a future where reality almost seems to be unraveling. Trees are falling, animals are dying out, cities are …
review by . December 14, 2009
The Fire Inside Still Burns
From what I've seen so far, The Road, has had a limited release in the United States. Apparently, only the bigger cities are fortunate enough to have this one make the big screens. Consequently, the last time I checked, the movie was at a mere $1.5 million in box office sales. Too bad. It's an excellent movie. And as far as the post-apocalyptic genre goes, it puts most of its predecessors to shame.      John Hillcoat, the director, proves that minimal is the way to go. The …
review by . July 04, 2010
With Vigo Mortensen, I thought the movie adaptation of the book would be better.  After all here is the action star of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I was wrong.  As boring as the book was, the movie is a lot more boring.        After some sort of world holocaust a father and his son wander around whatever is left just trying to survive while trying to avoid cannibalistic "bad people." Occasionally the father remembers his dead wife (she …
Quick Tip by . August 02, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
I'm no expert on post-apocalyptic movies, but this suffered the same fate as Book of Eli for me... strong start and then downhill halfway through. By definition, where can a movie of this nature really go? The ending was flat out pathetic, and the boy got really annoying after a while. Strong performance by Viggo Mortensen though and it did manage some tense moments to hold my interest. Curious about the book though, since as a rule I find most books to be much stronger than their film adaptations. …
Quick Tip by . July 26, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
It was too bad that the movie was not nearly as good as the book despite being as true to it as it was. The quality of the cgi may have had a lot to do with that, they were some what distracting.
Quick Tip by . July 10, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
One of the best book to movie adaptions I have seen. It seems depressing but is a tale of love between a father and son, a never ending unbreakable love. Very uplifting if you look at how there is still love when all else fails.
Quick Tip by . July 13, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
For those who care, Viggo gets naked but still can't save this movie. Shame that Charlize is only in this for about 15 seconds.
About the reviewer
Paul Savage ()
Ranked #57
I name and describe everything and classify most things. If 'it' already had a name, the one I just gave it is better.
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About this movie


The Road is a 2009 film directed by John Hillcoat and written by Joe Penhall. Based on the 2006 novel of the same name by American author Cormac McCarthy, the film stars Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as a father and his son in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Filming took place in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Oregon. The film received a limited release in North American cinemas from November 25, 2009 and is scheduled to be released in UK cinemas on January 4, 2010.
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Genre: Drama
Release Date: December 2, 2009
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 111 minutes
Studio: Dimension Films, Sony Pictures
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