x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Road: lost for words?

Bleak landscapes are depicted well in this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, but sparse dialogue makes the transition from book to screen difficult.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in the apocalyptic thriller The Road.
Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in the apocalyptic thriller The Road.

Director: John Hillcoat Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron Cormac McCarthy's best-selling dystopian novel about a father and his child walking across a post-apocalyptic America is given the big-screen treatment by The Proposition director John Hillcoat. Anyone who has read the book will know what a tough assignment this is, and to make matters worse the characters hardly speak to each other. The book conjures vividness from bleak descriptions of the barren landscape, the dead bodies on the ground and the absolute internal panic that the father feels about coming across anyone on the road.

Hillcoat proved with The Proposition that he could do threadbare landscapes, atmosphere and thin but perplexing storylines with aplomb. However, it was to the director's advantage that The Proposition was based on the cult musician Nick Cave's original screenplay (he's on hand for The Road to compose the score), and the audience didn't arrive with any preconceived notions of the story. The casting of Viggo Mortensen in the lead role is perfect. The Lord of the Rings star proved in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence and Eastern Promises that he can show a whole circus of emotions with the twitch of a facial muscle. Here, he plays the character known in the book as The Father, strong-willed but despondent. Kodi Smit-McPhee is quite a discovery in the challenging role of his son.

The casting of Charlize Theron as the mother was always cause for concern. It's not that she's bad in any way, but in the book the character is a peripheral figure who appears momentarily in flashbacks. The casting of an A-list star suggested that the part had been bulked up - and so it proves. Hillcoat, in what seems to be a misconceived attempt to add more dialogue, put in more flashback scenes of the father and mother arguing. These are unnecessary.

Hillcoat also pulls back on showing some of the most extreme elements described in the book. Yet the film is still bleaker than almost anything you are likely to see at the cinema this year, and to criticise it for failing in this aspect seems almost churlish, especially as the atmosphere remains cold and there aren't any of the cheap scares often found in horror films. The battle between man and nature is a feature of McCarthy's novels, and the major battle that the father and son face is to keep their humanity in such a harsh world. The trouble is that this is an internal battle, and Hillcoat doesn't do enough to express it effectively on screen. Instead, hope is shown in a couple of misconceived, saccharine moments.

The film is an admirable and commendable effort, without ever being as enthralling as the text upon which it is based.