Film: John Hillcoat: The Road (2009)

Cormac McCarthy writes as if from a distance, watching his characters with a detached clarity that hides none of their contradictions, or the chilly indifference of the world they inhabit.  Decades ago, in, say, “Blood Meridian” and “Outer Dark”, he spelled these things out in great, coarse detail, but exhibited no more inclination toward pop characterization than in his spare recent works, “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road”.  These read like screenplays, their enormous dramatic weight built accumulatively from the piecemeal narrative fragments that compel the reader to sift further in search of what other writers might give in self-conscious abundance: hooks. The trouble with hooks, or course, is that they don’t exist in life – they’re a distilled and sharpened version of life as we live it.  McCarthy at his shuddering best crafts stories at an oblique angle to drama, leaving the broad strokes to define themselves at length, over duration – the way we might feel them in our own reflective conscience.  What gets our attention is the way he writes: with poetic gravity, sometimes bordering on stolid, that seems to have pared the whole of earthly existence down to the one short string of English words imaginable.  He hooks with the line alone.

The things McCarthy manages to evoke in “The Road” are hard to express.  I felt a complete sense of perspective, unlimited by his characters but never stretching beyond them either, a god looking down at his archetypes, creator and creation both asking the essential questions inspired by their ruined surroundings.  How to move on, and to what?  For all its curt, specific dialogue and the raw fear sketched in the mind of the Man trying to keep his Boy alive, I never imagined faces on these people.  They are Humans wandering on the rim of human experience, their pasts worthless and their futures unfathomably unpredictable.  Skeletal prose has never seemed better suited to its content.

Which makes an adaptation to film virtually impossible.  McCarthy conjures with spare suggestion, not really imagery.  His words matter, not his characters’.  And when I heard that the director of The Proposition (2005) – dark, but not exactly a repository of visual restraint or patient mood-building – was going to tackle The Road as a film, the deep cynic in me grew anxious about another The Sheltering Sky via Bertolucci.  John Hillcoat exhibits a grungy flash in The Proposition that feels appropriate to Nick Cave’s dire, apocalyptic script, but he shows little humane sensitivity, or cinematic fluency in his choppy compositions and editing.  “The Road” is an Angelopoulos film, or a Tarkovsky film, or a Bela Tarr film of Satantango dimensions, rooted in the smell of the earth and the inexorable deliberateness of people discovering cold truths now, and now, and now.  It is no more a vehicle for showy, jolting style than for Triumphs of the Human Spirit.

The good news is that Hillcoat (and his Proposition screenwriter, Joe Penhall) very much wants to be faithful to McCarthy’s tone.  He is respectful of its fits and starts, even mimicking McCarthy’s ellipses with fades to black, and coating the whole film in the right dust and gloom of McCarthy’s burnt-out, falling-tree world.  Javier Aguirresarobe’s superlative photography is the best part of the adaptation, and perhaps the most difficult to render, cued as it is by evocative language alone.  There’s an unhurried pace to the film, and a gradual rise of inevitability that leads to the novel’s conclusion, which Penhall follows, in the Coens’ No Country style, with extraordinary fidelity.  Even the performances hold up – Hillcoat shows a far subtler awareness of verbal delivery than The Proposition suggested, and both Viggo Mortensen and his young costar, Kodi Smit-McPhee, seem to have walked right onto McCarthy’s pages and swallowed the archetypes whole.  These actors don’t quite create characters so much as embody their tone – a substantially harder task, I would argue, than fabricating arcs to “play” characters through, in traditional Hollywood fashion.

What’s missing is a feeling that any of this bears deeper resonance.  Whole sequences, carrying all the right beats and performed with the right degree of subtle directness, pass without current beneath their surface, as though we’re standing over an icy river instead of waist-deep in the cold water below.  I felt scenes simply failing to broaden, as they played out, into anything more than the literal visualization of the action McCarthy spelled out, minus his mighty gravitas.  A great deal of the problem, to my mind, is that so much of the film is told in closeups of the characters.  No doubt a result of the cost of the CGI necessary to create The Road‘s physical desolation, as well as a thoroughly Hollywood perception that the human face carries all requisite emotional context in a film, these closeups begin to reign in the novel’s sepulchral weight.  Putting constant faces to such broad allegorical precision – bear with me on that one – narrows the role of empathy in that context.  A closeup asks us to consider this person here, not an allegory; and since McCarthy has given us such nonspecific entities, such basic, essential sketches of Humans, the drama encoded in the exact faces of Penhall’s characters takes precedence over the leviathan drama McCarthy intimates at length, and around the edges of his scenes.  It takes the sensitivity to see beyond the function of a shot by itself to pull this off.  Hillcoat uses the right visual style, but it doesn’t seem familiar or unique to him.  He’s borrowed it without feeling his way through it.  A lot of his shots, tight and formally nebulous, are just inappropriate.

The natural soundtrack of the film is impressive, laden with the groan of falling trees and the rumbling of earthquakes, but the score, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, is no help, serving only to coax and sugarcoat.  I’m suspicious of film scoring in general, since too much clear emotion is so easily infused into a film with music; a director needs to fill his scenes with greater, more complex emotion than his music implies.  And the tragedy of the score, really, is that it spells out how Hillcoat wants you to feel about his film – the very last thing McCarthy ever approached in his prose.  You felt how to respond to the writing because it was focused and greedless.  You’re unsure how to feel about The Road because Hillcoat is less of a sculptor of cinema than McCarthy is of language.  Even Tarkovsky was careful to adapt works that worked less on the strength of literature than on their authors’ strengths as storytellers, allowing him to make a better film than the novel it started out as.

There’s always something to be said for taking a film like The Road entirely on its own terms, independent of the source text.  Its own merits, taken as a sequence of scenes from credits to credits, aren’t wholly dismissible.  It evokes its mood with effortless consistency, and it’s attentive to the silence of a newly uninhabited world.  Had I not read the novel two years ago, though, I suspect I’d still find the film oddly unmoving.  For all its work to create the personal experiences of the Man and Boy, as a film The Road is conflicted about how to look at itself, never entirely certain how to place these experiences in a broader context.  There are flashbacks to the Wife and Mother (Charlize Theron) that strive to emphasize the loss of Life, but these scenes do nothing to articulate just how lonely, fragmented, and uncertain things are in the new world – the deeper, fuller theme McCarthy built, a piece at a time, over the course of his novel.  Having read “The Road”, it’s hard to see how the film that wants to illustrate it works on its own terms – maybe a Sisyphean task, at the end of the day.  Film is specific in ways literature is free not to be.  Literature doesn’t have to give us faces.

One Response to “Film: John Hillcoat: The Road (2009)”

  1. Very astute review…I was oddly unmoved, too…but I was also oddly unmoved by the book…so I’m not sure if that was wholly the film’s fault. I thought Hillcoat was a good choice for the adaptation, though ultimately it was problematic in parts.

    Still…I found it to be compelling cinema, just as I found the book to be compelling reading.

    For what it’s worth, here’s my two cents:

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