Warning: contains spoilers
I’ve not read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but last year I was introduced to his work. I read Outer Dark, which I’ve written about before, and Blood Meridian. Blood Meridian is an extraordinary, unrelenting descent into the kind of temporal hell that the fortunate amongst us will only ever fear, never experience. Its biblical language, sense of creation being somehow corrupt at root – a kind of inverted gnosticism – is operatic and visceral; its depictions of savagery are unflinching.
I am easily frightened by post-apocalyptic movies. The first hour of 28 Days Later, Day of the Triffids, the parts of Threads I managed to sit through, even scenes in I Am Legend leave me nervous, claustrophobic and aware of the vast, overpopulated urban space surrounding me. I remember, years ago, alone and drunk, watching Things To Come late one night and feverishly wondering where I could get my hands on a firearm.
So, when a friend asked me if I wanted to see the film of The Road, I said yes – with reservations. Post-apocalyptic McCarthy? Did I want to start the weekend preoccupied with planning escape routes from Clapham or wondering how best to transport water on foot? As another friend told me this week: “Since I read The Road I keep a store of food and supplies in my house. And so do three other people I know.”
Strange, then, that I spent the film in a growing state of relief that nothing truly frightening was going to happen and – at the same time – increasingly disappointed that the film seemed to have demurred from taking me where I was so afraid to go. What were the problems?
Certainly not Viggo Mortensen, who gives the kind of egoless, intense and self-eviscerating performance that seems his default level of commitment to any project. I noted several close-ups of his dirty, stubbed fingernails – almost identical to several shots of his hands in Lord of the Rings; as if the filmmakers are saying: ‘Look, this guy’s not Hollywood. He gets his fingernails dirty. His fingernails!’ Top marks to Viggo.
And a mature, sad performance from Kodi Smit-McPhee as Viggo’s son, a character who presents the first problems. The child has been, we’re told, born into the apocalypse. He knows nothing but scavenging, grief and hunger. Yet he approaches each new threat with the whimpering surprise of a boy in Chelsea who just got addressed by a poor man through the open window of his mother’s parked SUV. This isn’t Smit-McPhee’s fault, but the screenplay seems not to account for the adaptability, the survival instinct in children. The boy never runs from danger but has to be dragged or carried by Viggo. If I was a nine-year-old apocalypse boy, I think I’d know how and when to run. When one reads of children living in horror – from Cockney mudlarks to child soldiers, shock and timidity are not their defining characteristics.
Another factor that seemed to soften the horror is the soundtrack. The kind of melancholy plinky-plonk piano one associates with films about people with perfect teeth coming to terms with things. It soothes, insists that our core experience of the film should not be despair, but a kind of mellow reflectiveness. When the credits rolled and I saw the soundtrack was by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, I was stunned. Cave should have left his Boatman’s piano at home and invited the Grinderman over for a bathtub gin and axe party.
The landscapes, the vistas of annihilation, are stunning, beautiful in a way that robs them of misery: one admires the desolation. But the filmmakers have chosen to wash the visuals with the kind of grey-sepia filters that have been popular for too long now. At times I felt I was watching the world’s longest, most depressing Guinness commercial: ‘he pushes a shopping trolley, it’s what he does…tick follows tick follows tock’. That the early flashback scenes to Viggo and wife Charlize Theron are coloured like an advert for some meadow-smelling detergent suggests that the apocalypse was nothing more than a re-branding exercise on the part of some capricious celestial account manager.
And one thing an audience member can guarantee is this: a film that gets funding in Hollywood will not feature the dismemberment and consumption of a brave little boy whose dad happens to be Aragorn, Son of Arathorn. Some Mad Max-styled Judge Holden would not appear, dandle him on his knee then cut his throat (the boy, not Viggo). If they died, it would be nobly. And so it turns out. Viggo dies his old viking’s death at the sea’s edge (a beautiful ruin of an ocean, sludge grey with no hope of seeing sky. Just like Norfolk, which makes me happy). The boy mourns and then…there’s a man coming! It’s probably a cannibal. No, it’s Guy Pierce. With his wife and two children. And a friggin’ dog. One with sad eyes and floppy ears: The only sacred form of life in Hollywood. Do they kill the boy and eat him, fuel for the hopeless road? Do they sadly explain that food is already scarce enough without another mouth to feed and leave him there alone? I’m not going to spoil it.
I’m lying in bed, awake. I’ve worked out that, if we headed south, then north east around London, rather than trying to head through the city, it would be the safest route. Sachets of porridge are lightest to carry but we would have to find water as we moved. A friend of mine used to be in the army. He lives close. We should head for his house first then to Norfolk, where I know the land…