John Hillcoat's The Road is middle-of-the-road

The Road, Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oprah-endorsed postapocalyptic survivalist prose poem — in which a father and his 10-year-old son traverse a despoiled landscape of unspeakable horror — was a quick, lacerating read. John Hillcoat's literal adaptation, which arrives one Thanksgiving past its original release date is, by contrast, a long, dull slog.

Taken as a Hail Mary flung from the Weinstein Company bunker, The Road has a certain pragmatic integrity. (While aimed at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, it's being strategically released by the Weinsteins' genre label, Dimension.) Fidelity to the material is not the problem. On the contrary. Freezing, starving, and dodging cannibal marauders, a man (earnest, increasingly Christ-like Viggo Mortensen) and his son (stolidly whimpering Kodi Smit-McPhee) follow the novel's keep-on-keepin'-on trajectory (apparently to Florida's Gold Coast), "carrying the fire" of human decency, as well as a gun loaded with two suicide bullets.

As a director, Hillcoat is certainly credentialed to handle this unpleasant saga. The Proposition, his 2006 Australian outback oater, was a savagely miserablist tale set in a dry-gulch hellhole of ferocious carnage. Although mildly sanitized, The Road has its grim frissons — such as when the man and the boy escape a redneck slaughterhouse of terror or discover the last can of Coke. But there's a bizarre absence of dramatic tension. One can either embrace McCarthy's laconic tone or ignore it — Hillcoat does neither. For all the added bad-guy assaults and earthquake-induced attack of the falling trees, his titular road never eludes its weighty pedigree — pale by comparison to an action thriller such as Children of Men or a gross-out eco-catastrophe such as Land of the Dead, squandering its ready-made zombie scenario. Where McCarthy was free to focus on how a posthuman world might feel, Hillcoat is compelled to illustrate these impressions and organize them into a coherent narrative.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee
Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee

Details

Directed by John Hillcoat. Written by Joe Penhall. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, and Robert Duvall. Rated R.

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Perhaps only a visionary genius such as Andrei Tarkovsky or a heedless schlockmeister such as Michael Bay could have handled the book's combination of visceral terror and mystical reflection. Ultimately, Hillcoat's The Road is less a disaster (or postdisaster) flick than a sort of global death trip — intended possibly as an audience ordeal in the tradition of The Passion of the Christ, complete with a redemptive ending and regularly articulated life lessons. All meetings on the road are potential parables, every repetitive exchange between the man and the boy is presented as a mantra, and the appearance of a rheumy, putrid old man provides a gabby cameo for guest star Robert Duvall.

The Road's long and winding path to the multiplex might make a more fascinating saga than the movie itself. That the 2008 version was evidently deemed too bleak for audience consumption might account for the presence of Mortensen's lugubrious, voiceover croon and the ruminative keyboard doodling used to soften every other scene. In addition to the obtrusive Nick Cave and Warren Ellis score, the boy's dead mother, who regularly appears in the man's thoughts in the tawny, distracted form of Charlize Theron, at one point plays the piano.

Other memories of life before include gauzy closeups of flowers, trees, and the family horse. The last is a nice touch, although an interesting addition to the novel is the closeup of the postapocalyptic puppy that appears in the movie's final scene. It's a last-minute Christmas card reminiscent of the voiceover that opens Sam Fuller's Vietnam-set China Gate: "In this ravaged city where people are starving, all the dogs have been eaten except one."

 
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