Despite Rich Source Material, 'The Road' is Lacking One Thing: Ideas

The Weinstein Company

City Pulse | November 23, 2009
The Road is a one-note road version of Waiting for Godot, minus Samuel Beckett's brilliant sense of existentialist humor. Based on Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel, director John Hillcoat makes no attempt to convert screenwriter Joe Penhall's straight-line rendition into a narrative arc. It doesn't help that the characters don't have names. Viggo Mortensen plays "the Man." His 11-year-old son is "the Boy" (played blankly by Kodi Smit-McPhee). After being deserted by "the Wife" (played by Charlize Theron), Man and Boy wander a gray post-apocalyptic America where no explanation of what happened to wipe out most of the country is ever given. Determined to make it south to the ocean, our homeless duo encounter marauding gangs of murderers and cannibals. The baddies are menacing enough, but any attendant suspense is blunted by the movie's lack of narrative structure. The Man has only two bullets in his revolver, reserved for murder-suicide should the situation ever require such desperate measures. Robert Duvall plays the film's most empathetic character, a fellow traveler on the film's road to nowhere.

Of Cormac McCarthy's last six novels, three have been turned into films and another one (Blood Meridian -- to be directed by Todd Field) is due for release in 2011. While Billy Bob Thornton's laconic directorial effort with All the Pretty Horses (2000) went largely unnoticed, the Coen Brothers' 2005 rendering of No Country for Old Men shed a different kind of light on the darkly comic filmic possibilities of McCarthy's work. The Coens transmogrified No Country into a film that somehow encompassed implacable greed and cruelty with a jaundiced satirical eye that pushed the audience into thinking about America's political influence on its dusty border-patrolled landscape. Indeed, satire is the very thing that's missing from John Hillcoat's prosaic treatment of what should have been an expansive commentary on America's knee-jerk consumerist culture that's driving the Industrial Revolution off a cliff and taking Mother Nature with it.

John Hillcoat struck it lucky in 2005 adapting Nick Cave's wild-and-wooly Australian western The Proposition, by nurturing a Hitchcock-inspired sense of suspense and unpredictable violence that lent historical meaning to the material. But Hillcoat is on far less stable ground when dipping his toes into an emaciated futuristic environment.

The filmmakers treat McCarthy's multi-layered survival novel as nothing more than a handing off of generational hope into the hands of strangers that seem no more capable or trustworthy than those that came before. Certainly, Joe Penhall does a disservice to McCarthy's text by inserting flashbacks about the wife, seemingly for the purpose of adding Charlize Theron's name to the credits in the hope of attracting a wider audience. The Road needed a more worldly hands-on auteur like a Tarantino or a Verhoeven who could craft the script and put it on film with an overarching influence of humor and editorial meaning. If you look at a film like Inglourious Basterds or Starship Troopers you find yourself pulled into a whirlpool of narrative inertia that's entirely absent in The Road because the filmmakers embrace an ambivalent attitude regarding subtext. For such rich source material, the filmmakers have left out the most important ingredient: ideas.
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