Film review – The Road (2009)

The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee)

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.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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  1. My issue with the ending was how abrupt and tidy it was.
    I Havent read the book so I cant comment there but I just felt it needed a little more lead up work before wrapping it up an a nice bow like it did.

    Viggo was fantastic too. I’m always amazed when I see an actor mess with their health for a role.

  2. The ending has attracted such a range of opinions. I wish I could say more without spoiling it. However, I’ve now spoken to people who found it ambiguous and people who felt cheated. I know people who took something uplifting from it and others who found it disturbing.

    It certainly does work better in the novel but after now seeing the film twice and really carefully analysing the structure, I maintain that is an appropriate ending and probably the only possible ending. I’m certainly yet to hear anybody come up with a decent alternative.

    As for Mortensen: he really is amazing but I don’t think he actually messed with his health that much. Apart from some strategic and careful weight loss I think there was simply a lot of inhaling during key scenes. A make-up artist friend of mine also said that she could tell that they did a lot of shadowing make-up on his body to make it look gaunt. Still very impressive though.

  3. I’ve not read the book, but have heard of how the two media differ. I think this ending works perfectly for this medium – it needs that ending. There’s ambiguity because there’s hope (and we certainly need it at that point), but there’s been so much gone down and you can hardly call it a happy ending.

  4. I thought the ending initially unsatisfying, until I read the book, and now find it appropriate and faithful.

  5. Not as good as the book (shocker) but this was a great movie all the same and one of the best of ’09 imo. Can see how people might not dig it if they’re going in blind, but a really great adaptation all the same. Ecstatic to see you throw some love to The Proposition, too; best Western of the past decade. Great site and great writing, man. Keep it up.

  6. Maybe it’s me – this was the third film I’ve walked out on in my life. I haven’t read the book, but it wasn’t a very sophisticated post-apocalyptic story (certainly not on a par with William Gibson). I found this really frustrating. The tension was derived from dramatic cliches that would be more at home in Saw 16 or Lassie Come Home. My partner, who isn’t such a science fiction fan as myself, stayed till the end, so we talked about it.

    Was the point of the story to show us how meaningless our lives our? The kid didn’t take on any of the lessons his father tried so hard to teach him.

    Oh – and how does a kid develop such a n ingrained disgust at cannibalism? He didn’t know any other world…he had no other moral guidelines. Smacks of lazy, sensationalistic writing to me.

    I think I shall go and read some reviews of the book and see if it was the story, or the film that is the source of my dissatisfaction.

  7. Thanks Aiden – I would have included The Road somewhere on my Top Ten Films of 2009 had it got a cinema release in my part of the world in time. I’m sure it will now find its way onto my 2010 list instead. I love The Proposition and when I get around to compiling my top films of the last decade list it will be there!

  8. Hi essjayeff

    No, it’s not just you as I’ve spoken to other people who couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. I think a lot of it has to do with false expectations that some of the advance advertising has a lot to blame for. The Road is set in a post-apocalyptic world but it is not a post-apocalyptic story in the action/adventure/science-fiction way that we are so used to seeing. The fact that we never find out what has happened indicates that the cause of the catastrophe is not important but is simply there to facilitate the core of what The Road is really about and that’s the bond between father and son in a world of incredible harshness and indifference.

    I don’t think the film or the book are saying that life is meaningless, I think they are saying that even in the face of immense horror and bleakness, the sparks of hope, love and humanity between a father and his son are still burning. The fact that even in such desperate times the father doesn’t resort to cannibalism and has brought his son up with enough moral guidance for him to also reject cannibalism is just one example of their humanity.

    The film is actually incredibly close to the Pulitzer Prize winning book so be rest assured that there is nothing clichéd, sensational or lazy about it. It was also written by McCarthy (who is in his 70s) as a dedication to his youngest son (who is the same age as the boy character). So I, and many others, have regarded this as a very personal expression by McCarthy of being a father who knows his time on the planet is now limited and wants to prepare his son for the world the best that he can with what time he has left.

    I deeply love this film and novel but I know it won’t be for everybody.


  9. Hmm.. interesting. I wasn’t expecting a science fiction “action” story, just a good post-apocalyptic one. I like bleak and dark, (loved The Proposition and Ghosts is one of my all time favourites) and read a good whack of “literature”.

    I was disappointed that any character with an ability to survive in that world would enter an obviously inhabited house, and stay to look around…wtf! It’s an inane teenage horror story set-up. That annoyed me so much I couldn’t get past it – which is on reflection why I left.

    I didn’t find Kodi Smit-McPhee ‘s acting to be brilliant either, so perhaps I had expectations of a sophisticated tale, and it sounds like the novel (i.e. the story) let me down, rather than the movie. Or perhaps as I don’t have any burning desire to leave any of my “genes” around on this planet after I die, I’m just not the target market. I didn’t see (in the first hour I watched) any love from that young man, just a lot of doting parent.

    I haven’t finished any of the other Cormac McCarthy book’s I’ve started to read, perhaps I was just hoping that the setting would get me interested in the writing…and I don’t, as a rule, enjoy Pulitzer Prize winners. *sigh* I should have done some more homework on the book first I think.

    I’m going to try to read it now – cause I like to know why I have different opinions to others. And I’ll keep an eye out for what other folks think of this one. Maybe it’s a “boy” thing :-)

  10. Fair enough and sorry if I made an assumption about your expectations. Nevertheless, I still maintain that it’s not even a post-apocalyptic film despite its setting.

    It sounds like it’s simply not your cup of chai and that’s cool. I know there are plenty of films that I find highly questionable despite being seemingly at odds with everybody else I know. However, I don’t think liking The Road is just a “boy” thing but that’s simply going by discussions I’ve had with various women including my wife, female friends and the female panellists involved in a discussion that I moderated about the film. Most (but not all) women I have spoken to have been very enthusiastic about The Road as a novel and a film.

    As for the scene where they enter the house – yes, it may have seemed silly to us but they were starving and desperate. They were also probably unaware of horror film conventions. Characters in a film don’t always possess the same degree of information about such things are the audience do so I tend to give them a pass on things like that.

  11. Oh no need to apologise about assumptions – it’s all grist for the mill and making me think about why I was disappointed. I like having my motives questioned :-) It’s been a good discussion. I’ll let you know how I go with the book.

  12. A little late in the conversation, but the scene where they enter the house where the cannibals live they were both quite literally starving to death and quite fatigued. I know my judgement is compromised under extreme fatigue alone! The one thing in both the book and movie is that the kid noticed all the signs that the house was occupied but the father was so focused on food he missed them.

  13. Joining this late (I just saw the movie on DVD last night), but the cannibal house scene had two big plot holes in it:
    1. How do the cannibals keep their “herd” alive when there is no food (maybe the book suggests this)?
    2. That house should have been unhabitable due to the stench– and unless they have lost their sense of smell the father and son ought have known what was up the moment they opened the basement door if not before.

    In a fantasy or scifi or horror flick I wouldn’t be so critical, but this movie relies on hard, cold realism, and it fails here. It would have made more sense if the “herd” had been slaughtered already and was slowly curing in a smokehouse or being salted or pickled or some such.

  14. Hi Aleks311

    Pretty far on from previous discussions so I’ll leave that all behind and focus on what you thought about the house scene. I understand what your saying but if I lived in that house (and sadly ate people) I’d keep the people/herd downstairs alive because, just surmising but I recon when the cannabals caught an unlucky person that the person would already have been starving too.

    So heres what my steps to survival as a cannable would have to be:
    1. There wouldnt be much meat on them, so letting them starve further wouldnt make too much of a difference on the volume of edible parts. Therefor I’d think they’d keep them alive for as long as possible, keeping the meat fresh/long lasting.
    2. I recon because of the resources available as well as the (probable) lack of knowledge on how to salt or pickle meat etc. Or even if they did, theres only so much salt inland so they’d run out after so many bodies.
    3. You never know when your next going to catch a person in the wild, Therefor killing off your “herd” early is probably unwise, keep them goin for as long as possible.
    4. In terms of what do the “herd” get fed, I recon they simply dont, hense their physical condition, or that they get the gutts or something (I’m only surmising, and I dont know if that would be bad in the long run by poisoning the herd, I remember watching something on an artic crossing and the explorers ate the dogs but by eating the liver or some part the poisoned themselves and died because of built up toxins)

    Let me know your thoughts on what I’ve come up with and what you recon would happen in that climate. Its a tricky topic.

  15. Hello … I picked this movie up last night via RedBox not knowing anything about it or the book. It was outstanding in my opinion, one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.

    @ Benecio: there actually were signs leading up to the conclusion … I agree with Paul Martin when he says it needed that ending. I know, I needed that ending after so much stress throughout the film. It’s not a tidy conclusion, though; the world still continues …

    @ essjayeff: I thought Kodi Smit-McPhee did an outstanding job in this film. His range of emotion was very believable. As the movie progresses, after the scene in the occupied house, he becomes very aware of his surroundings and teaches his father compassion toward others in spite of their circumstances. He is the one who continues to “carry the fire.” I’m female and didn’t look at this story as a boy’s story at all. Many people have described it as a love story and I agree with that assessment. The love between a parent and a child, and a child’s love for a humanity he does not know but believes exists.

    I was particularly aware of the small hopeful scenes in an otherwise bleak movie: the glimpse of color, the flight of a bird, the discovery of food, and the ability to rest comfortably if only for a short while. Very basic things we all take for granted in our daily lives. I was so impressed with the film, I plan on buying the book this weekend.

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