by Matt Fagerholm
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If John Hillcoat’s long-awaited adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s towering novel teaches us anything, it’s that the apocalypse should not be scored. Hillcoat has forgotten that the most enveloping cinematic depictions of the world’s end contained very little music (The Birds, Children of Men), and found great power in the use of silence. That’s the approach that was needed to truly capture the spirit and atmosphere of McCarthy’s text (the Coen Brothers did it to great success in No Country For Old Men). But alas, Hillcoat has used a score (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) that intrudes upon and undermines the vast majority of his picture. It comforts the audience by telling them what to feel, signaling when danger is approaching, or when safety has been reached.
The score sticks out like a sore thumb on a landscape that contains no such reassuring signposts. McCarthy’s novel contains such vivid imagery that it practically encourages the reader to envision how it would look on screen. In that regard, the film is somewhat of a success. Gershon Ginsburg’s art direction and Robert Greenfield’s production design create a world drained of all color and life, as if the entire planet suddenly had all the texture and vitality of a dried autumn leaf. As in the book, there’s no explanation for how the apocalypse came about, though one of the characters ambiguously notes, “There were warnings…” The story is ultimately about the enduring love between a father and son. This film has been in development for so long, that I once put together my own dream cast (Daniel Day Lewis would re-team with his There Will Be Blood co-star, Dillon Freasier, and the film would shoot for a Father’s Day release). Of course Father’s Day doesn’t occur during Oscar season, and Day-Lewis has been busy taking singing lessons.
But luckily, Viggo Mortensen proves to be a splendid choice for the unnamed father who carries the film on his increasingly gaunt shoulders. His bravely raw performance nearly saves the picture, as does the refreshingly unaffected work from young Kodi Smit-McPhee as his son. Unfortunately, they’re surrounded by a distracting supporting cast consisting of star cameos. Though the character of the wife barely registers in the novel, she appears in the film (via flashback) long enough to demonstrate how weak she is in the face of despair. She’s as useless as the mother in Will Smith’s Pursuit of Happyness, which the film queasily resembles in its more sentimental moments (combined with the half-assed starkness of another Smith vehicle, I Am Legend).
I was convinced that Hillcoat would’ve been a good choice for this material, considering the wonderful job he did on his existential western, The Proposition. The problem here is that he treats The Road as if it was a western, complete with self-conscious narration, moralistic dialogue and, of course, that godawful melodramatic music. By the time the story reaches its conclusion, the moment carries none of the emotional weight that it did in the book, and comes off as anticlimactic. You know something’s wrong when the message of the movie is reduced to a bad laugh.
Since the studio clearly has no idea how to sell this film (which was in postproduction hell before flopping at various festivals), they’ve decided to market it to a Christian audience. Considering the masochism of most Christian entertainment, maybe that’s not all that bad of an idea. Come all ye faithful viewers, and witness The Passion of the Viggo. Don’t forget to bring the kids!
Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.
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