The Road

Thankless task
★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
2009
Director: 
John Hillcoat
Starring: 
Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall
The Setup: 
Father and son trudge on through a post-catastrophe wasteland.
Discussion: 

There are some books that shouldn’t be made into movies, and The Road is one of them. The novel, which I admired but didn’t love, gained its power not through any big event, but just through the constant trudging of the man and boy through the blasted-out post-apocalypse wasteland, and the ever-present evocation of the bleakness of the world, so consistent and persistent that it soaked into one while reading the book. And the book did what books do that movies can’t: it left you a lot of time to think, and reflect, and since it might take a week or more to read the book, for that week the story is with you in various ways, and your mind is processing it in the background. This is something that, for the most part, can’t happen in movies. In addition, a book like this, that is long on atmosphere but short on plot, is particularly unsuited for film—and especially an Oscar-bait film with Serious Importance watermarked across every frame. Nevertheless, as was decreed by Congress in 1978, All Bestsellers Must Be Adapted Into Films, and so here we are.

We open with images of leaves and flowers. Viggo Mortensen as The Man [the characters have no names] and his wife, played by Charlize Theron, are happy and content. But—it was all a dream! The world is now a burnt-out wasteland following some never-explained disaster. The man and his son are slowly wandering toward the coast—although what they expect to find there us up to question. The father occasionally lays out exposition in voice-over. He shows the son how to kill himself with a gun, should the need arise. They only have two bullets. They hide from and shoot one of the roving bands on cannibals they must constantly try to avoid.

There are numerous flashbacks to the Man’s life with his wife, bumped up for the movie so we can increase the female quotient and have a woman [who is not a crusty post-apocalypse wretch] to put in the trailers. She’s also on hand to voice some of the thoughts such as: Why not just kill ourselves? Why go on? Part of the thing about the book is that as it continued, these questions arose in your mind by themselves, without someone having to step in and direct you precisely what to think.

The movie trudges forward, never completely dull but never completely involving, the “tasteful” score seemingly ever-present but never making much of an impression. They find this car. They find that house. They get their food stolen. They find new food. They walk. They escape these cannibals. Etc. There is one sequence that does succeed in surprising and momentarily raising the pulse, but as it’s the only one I’ll leave it for you to discover, should you be dragged to the movie.

A one point they find a fallout shelter filled with cans of food, logos all turned suspiciously outward, giving us a second chance in as many weeks [after 2012] to ponder the Product Placement of the Apocalypse. Perhaps we’re meant to think “Wow, that family chose Del Monte canned fruit as what THEY would want to eat as humanity slowly withers away toward extinction. I guess it’s good enough for my boys!” I’d like to be a copywriter for ads like that. “After soccer practice, or global biological catastrophe, Del Monte Peaches have just-picked freshness!”

As you can tell, I have almost nothing left to say about the movie itself.

Everything about this movie is a thankless task. Directing it is, because it is especially unsuited to becoming Oscar-bait holiday entertainment, and due to the grim subject matter and fact that the book was popular, one can’t effect the more drastic changes one would need to make to adapt it to film. The same restrictions apply to adapting the screenplay. Writing the music is certainly a thankless task, as anything too ostentatious would grate against the grim atmosphere, and anything else will just disappear beneath notice. In all these cases, anything you do, you lose. The actors are able to emerge unscathed—anything that happens is not THEIR fault—but everyone else should have just taken a pass. The irony is that the resulting film is so tepid and monotonous it is unlikely to garner any of the Academy attention that seems to be its only reason for existing.

After it was over, my friend and I agreed that the only way to save this story would have been to go much more high-art and make it very boring, minimal and existential. Of course, that movie has already been made, and it’s called Time of the Wolf by Michael Haneke. Something very much like it was also made by Tarkovsky—the only person I can think of who could really make something of this novel—and it’s called Stalker. As it is now, this is a film that never should have been made, has no reason to exist, and even fewer reasons for anyone to see it.

Should you watch it: 

No, I wouldn’t bother. The book is worthwhile, however.