Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: The Road

The Road (***/****)

I've heard it said that The Road, Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic war novel, is unfilmmable. John Hillcoat's film attempts to prove this statement false, and succeeds to some degree. I suppose the question should not be whether or not the book is filmable; the worthier question is if it should be filmed in the first place.
The Road concerns the travels of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they travel toward the coast through a bleak, lifeless landscape, constantly harried by bands of roving cannibals eager for a meal. Their journey is peppered with flashbacks to the father and his wife, before the world destroyed itself, as well as many a campfire chat about carrying "the fire," aka goodness and decency. John Hillcoat's film is at its best when it is most bleak: the film is riveting and compelling when it details the day-to-day struggles of Man and Boy, or when it evokes the true evil roaming the world. In these passages, Hillcoat achieves something akin to post-apocalyptic neo-realism, bringing urgency and tension to an already extreme scenario. The movie falters, however, when it attempts become didactic. The conversations the father has with his son are admirable attempts, but ultimately feel rather hokey and contrived. Similarly, the scenes with the man and his wife (played by a seemingly disinterested Charlize Theron) appear compelling at first glance, but are unable to sustain the dramatic tension that is achieved throughout the rest of the film.
Technically speaking, the film is fantastic. Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography is starkly beautiful and mood-enhancing, while Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's score is a gorgeous exercise of simple, mournful melodies that lend more emotional weight than some scenes deserve. The production design, as well, as incredibly effective in its evocation of a world past its expiration date. The film feels, at times, like a documentary on a world after an apocalyptic event.
Performance-wise, the film has trouble sustaining its quality. Viggo Mortensen is fantastic, as always. He brings a quiet dignity and stoicism to his role, which makes his few moments of emotional breakdown to be all the more affecting. Kodi Smit-McPhee, as the child, is less proficient. It's not a bad performance, per se: he simply fails to reach the heights that the source material provides for him. McPhee is capable at crying and looking scared, but fails to delve into his character beyond that.
Overall, the film is a success, of a fashion. It's certainly proficient enough, it provides some striking visuals, and contains some harrowing moments. As a whole, however, The Road fails to live up to its origins. An interesting experiment, and certainly not a failure, but not the best that the year has to offer.

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