Movie Review: The Road (2009)

Robert Duvall, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Viggo Mortensen in The Road
Photo: Dimension Films

Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is a book I can’t recommend often enough and if you have a free afternoon, pick it up and give it a read. Trust me, it won’t take you any longer than that as a destroyed and ashen world is brought to desperate life as a father and son make their way to the coast in hopes of something… anything.

Once it was announced John Hillcoat, the director of the underappreciated Australian western The Proposition, was set to direct an adaptation of McCarthy’s work on the heels of the Coen brothers’ successful adaptation of “No Country for Old Men”, my interest was piqued. I rushed out, picked up a copy and finished at three in the morning. Remembering the brutal reality of The Proposition I couldn’t imagine a better director to bring this violently bleak and gray world to the big screen. As it turns out, that’s exactly what he did, but unfortunately a page-for-page accurate adaptation is not what this story needed.

The hardest part for me in forming an opinion of this film is attempting to separate myself from the book and evaluating the film on its own. However, it’s the only approach I can take to this material as a certain glimmer of hope found in McCarthy’s prose is lost in this big screen adaptation that looks just as you may have pictured it in your mind, but that can sometimes be the problem. When something looks almost as you may have expected it, but not quite, there is that certain something that’s missing and changes the entire picture. It’s what’s between the lines, and with Hillcoat’s The Road it’s that one piece that had me watching this film from afar and getting very little out of it.

Starring as the caring father looking after his young boy is Viggo Mortensen. Nameless and as dirty and disheveled as you would expect one to be following the anonymous event that left the world in shambles, father and son are left to their own devices, navigating a world filled with cannibals and unknown dangers around every corner. Mortensen fits the role just as well as Kodi Smit-McPhee embodies the life of his young son, but the path we follow them on seems like nothing more than a means to a predictable end. The journey in no way feels important as much as it seems we are just waiting around for the credits to roll so we can go home.

Of course, these seem like harsh words for a film I look at as technically proficient and well acted. It just seems like the heart of the story is missing, even though you are wholly convinced Viggo will do anything to protect his son from the harsh reality surrounding them.

Contributing to the picture are a cast of known actors in lesser roles. Charlize Theron plays Viggo’s wife in a series of flashbacks throughout. Robert Duvall and Michael Kenneth Williams are both excellent (Duvall almost unrecognizable) as stragglers along the road that come into contact with the father and his son. And Guy Pearce has a short moment of screen time toward the end of the picture. Duvall and Williams both create for the best moments in the film, tapping into the human element the film needed more of, while the book was able to survive without it thanks to McCarthy’s words.

Hillcoat is an excellent director and The Road is a film that quite possibly was never going to work for me due to my love of the novel. It’s well made and visually representative of McCarthy’s story, but for me it just didn’t work as a piece of cinema. Hopefully many of you will feel otherwise and be able to enjoy it.