The Road

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.

2.30AM.

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…

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “The Road

  1. mishari

    Good critique. I think we’re in perfect agreement. In some ways (Mortensen’s performance, Duvall’s small outing, the photography), the film was satisfying, but as you say: why was the kid so fucking clueless? I imagine the colour-saturated flashbacks were an intentional contrast with the monochrome/sepia present, days of happiness/days of misery…a bit ham-fisted.

    The music could have been so much better, given that it was Cave doing it and the dog was a bit much. I mean, was that the last fucking dog in the world? Trust Guy Pearce (replete with post-apocalyptic teeth) to nab him…

    There’s another post-apocalypse flick just out called The Book of Eli with Denzil Washington that got a pretty good review in the New York Times. Personally, I love post-apocalypse flicks. I’m fascinated by people’s behaviour in extreme circumstances (or how film-makers imagine people will behave in the most extreme circumstances).

  2. I also love post-apocalyptic movies – forget to mention Chilren of Men in the piece above. But, just as one accepts the toll of a hangover when deciding to enjoy a long night of carousing, I accept that, to balance my enjoyment and fascination with these stories, my imagination may well play havoc with my night-time thoughts. As it proved in this case.

    I assume you’ve read the book of The Road, Mishari? Does it end the same way? I assumed not, but then the friend I saw the film with told me that all the ‘good guy/bad guy’ suff (acceptable once, intolerable the fifth or sixth time, as I believe someone mentioned at PL), is also in the book.

    I think my main problem was that, as the film so palpably had a conventional story-arc, there could be no true sense of anarchy, random atrocity and an indifferent universe: all qualities I associate with any decent hell-on-earth.

  3. mishari

    The film is, as far as I remember (it’s been a few years since I read it) faithful to the book. Certainly, the endings are the same. The good guy/bad guy stuff actually works quite well in the book, conveying a sense of people adrift from any moorings: you know–here’s a kid who really needs to have the distinction re-enforced, who has never had the exemplars that we take for granted, whose only frame of reference is this bleak and ruined world.

    I guess the conventional story-arc was inevitable, really. Travellers, a road, a destination. I prefer the anarchy and explicit horror of The Omega Man (and whatever the Will Smith re-make was called) and the film of Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog.

  4. The Will Smith movie was I Am Legend. Which, now I think about it, broke the dog-as-inviolable Hollywood rule. I’ve not heard of A Boy and His Dog.

    I think the story-arc disappointed me also because it is possible to tell a story that gives all the satisfaction of a classic arc but still manages to surprise and keep one guessing. After seeing the Road, I watched Moon, by Duncan (Zowie Bowie) Jones. It’s a great, great film (with many weird parallels to The Road: physical deterioration, a two-hander, flashbacks to happier times with an absent wife). But I never knew what was coming next, and the film kept me guessing all the way through – allowing the sense of a hostile environment to appear far more authentic.

  5. mishari

    True, but the book didn’t subvert conventional narrative either, so…

    Anyway, I’ll keep an eye out for Moon and I recommend A Boy and His Dog. The novella by HE is terrific and the film (starring a very young pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson) has its pleasures. The denouement is, erm…delicious…in fact, if I can find a copy, I’ll burn it and pass it along.

  6. mishari

    OK, found a copy and downloading it now. In the mean time, here’s the wiki entry:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Boy_and_His_Dog

  7. Thanks!

    I’m still trying to find the right ‘special’ night to watch Bad Lieutenant. Some kind of drinking game, perhaps.

    I forgot to mention, regarding The Road; I only ate a small lunch and the film started an hour later than we thought. So, throughout, I was starving and hence rather symapthetic towards the various roaming gangs of free-range, non-GM flash-farmers.

  8. shuabparvez

    Interesting take on The Road. I agree with some of your comments but others not so much. I thought the boy was good – a lot better than your usual whiny American kid actors – think John Connor in the Terminator movies. The weakness in the child, I think was intentional – his journey was to go from weakness to strength, in contrast to Viggo’s character arc which was the opposite. I found the human farming scene pretty terrifying. Apparently some of the movie was toned down – a graphic baby barbecue scene was deleted because it was thought it would shock audiences a bit too much. I remember after watching that film looking around me, waiting for the bus the next morning and thinking that Cormac McCarthy is spot on – we’re half-way down the ‘Road’ already.

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