Voiceover, parched: “The clocks stopped at 1.17”. The why and the when – month, year – don’t matter. Nuclear war? Environmental catastrophe? Punishment from above (“If there’s a God up there, he’d have turned his back on us by now…”)? All we know for sure is that humankind has brought this upon itself, sometime, somehow.
Travelling south are two stick figures. Man (Viggo Mortensen) has scabs for eyes, his ancient face comprised of razor-ridges and plunging hollows. Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is begrimed and fretful, reeking of terror.
They are father and son, huddling, clutching, eking their way across a grey and desolate landscape: stunted trees, deserted flyovers, glowering clouds, soot-stained rain, slanted power pylons, hunkered, rust-coated trucks and a sloughed ship. Their goal is the ocean. Survival will do.
With stock stacked high after 2007’s The Proposition, director John Hillcoat here shoulders Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, a work that echoes his apoco-western in Old Testament heft. It’s therefore no surprise that Hillcoat’s take is committed and bold and cruel to the eye, from the tines of Mortensen’s ribs to the emptiness of the skies.
The soundscape comprises tense, terse dialogue (Man: “They committed suicide.” Boy: “Why?” Man: “You know why.”), a plaintive piano refrain, not much else. Yet for all their integrity, Hillcoat’s ash-and-slime visuals are unable to harness the weight, the ruggedness, the pain and poetry of McCarthy’s spare, eloquent prose.
It’s a tough ask, certainly, but one made tougher by the director opting to break up the grim action with lucent, too-frequent flashbacks of Man’s wife, played by Charlize Theron. And with the timeframe lacking clarity (weeks? months?), the protagonists’ journey is robbed of its persistence and pitilessness.
All of which means The Road, though adult and intelligent and fashioned by a filmmaker of consequence, stands as a good film of a great book. Shame.