After the success of Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, the next novel by McCarthy that was the obvious one to adapt for the screen was his Pulitzer Price-winning novel The Road. When it was announced that Australian director John Hillcoat was going to direct there was a sense of relief. Hillcoat’s previous film, his 2005 Australian Western masterpiece The Proposition, articulated the sort of violent existentialism and bleak landscapes that are to be found in McCarthy’s story about an unnamed man and his son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Also, Hillcoat’s début feature film, the 1988 futuristic prison drama Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, contains a similar fragmented narrative to The Road where a sense of relentless monotony is punctuated with extreme, but fleeting, incidents.
The trust placed in Hillcoat to adapt The Road has paid off and the result is one of cinema’s most faithful adaptations. Hillcoat has embellished some aspects of the novel and condensed others for the purpose of making the text more cinematic but it would be very difficult to question any of his decisions as by doing so he has successfully ensured that The Road functions as a film in its own right.
As the unnamed father in the film, Viggo Mortensen delivers an astonishing performance as a man who is essentially trying to survive while still doing the right thing. The parental bond that Mortensen establishes on screen with the 13-year-old actor Kodi Smit-McPhee playing his son is extremely powerful and this bond gives the film the small bursts of humanity that radiate out through the bleakness. Smit-McPhee is astonishing and demonstrates a disciplined approach to portraying complex emotions on-screen that is far beyond his years. Together the pair ‘carry the fire’ through a wilderness populated by murderers, rapists and cannibals.
Visually The Road is a relentless palate of greys and browns making the eye initially struggle to adjust to its lack of colour and light. This of course is part of what makes the film such a beautiful expression of McCarthy’s prose and Hillcoat wisely uses a low-key combination of location footage and CGIs to create a sad industrial wasteland that is more reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker than Mad Max.
The one main sticking point many may have with Hillcoat’s The Road is the ending, which, although it stays faithful to the novel, on the surface may appear compromised. It is nevertheless a fitting conclusion that actually remains completely true to the core ideas expressed throughout the rest of the film and upon extended reflection it becomes clear that it is the only ending that is possible. Anything else would have upset the delicate balance of ideas and meaning that make The Road resonate so profoundly.