Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - June 18, 2010

Ready to Rent

The Road Sony DVD and Blu-Ray 1 hour, 51 minutes Director: John Hillcoat

by Joe Ramirez

Director John Hillcoat's "The Road" is a great movie as an adaptation, but just an OK experience as a movie, probably because it's too close to its source material by Cormac McCarthy. The novel, if you haven't heard it from Oprah or the Pulitzer foundation, is a dark parable of keeping human in a world which is less than that, with author McCarthy always playing a balancing act between Sergio Leone's operatic Americana and Cornell Woolrich's comfortable nihilism. He is all faux folklore; but, unlike his spiritual cousin Stephen King, McCarthy's writing does not feel like an exercise in compulsory exhibition. There is something that works in his deliberate, gothic prose, and "The Road," his shortest, feels like one big distilled idea that is perfect for a screenwriter (or a comic book creator nowadays). Because of McCarthy's leniency, Hillcoat manages to capture not only McCarthy's feel, but also Viggo Mortenson's best performance, which confirms for me that he has earned the title of the most underrated actor working today.

Sourcing Cormac McCarthy for movie material is very strange, in my opinion, because he is so internally focused, so impression bound, that it's hard to palpate his implied prose. He has had, however, the Cohens' "No Country for Old Men" as proof enough, and even Billy Bob Thorton's "All the Pretty Horses," but it takes a very special moviemaker to understand his nuances, and especially when landscape is concerned. He knows that the American West, and especially the South, are places of mythic proportions, and sets his struggles there that are, depending on how you like your movie subtleties, biblical in proportion. Luckily, director John Hillcoat, who made 2005's "The Proposition," the Aussie equivalent of "El Topo," understands how to extol the relationship between landscape and biblical imagery so as not to come off as a pretentious brat.

"The Road" takes place in a time when the earth is dying, and a new dark age has supplanted civilization. Details are never realized for the audience and are essentially unimportant, because the movie is about human connections. Both a father (Mortenson) and son (a wrenching Kodi Smit-McPhee) are traveling in the American South trying to make their way to warmer climates and are using the highways for their trek. The world, need I say, is filled with violent survivors of this cataclysm, and it seems like cannibalism is the respected form of socializing, so the pair spends most of their time in exhausted anxiety. As the father tries to prepare his son for the dangers of the world, his morality is constantly tested with his son looking on.

The parts of the "The Road" that feel clunky are the ones which announce their principals. This is especially true for scenes between the father and son talking about carrying the light, which feels like stilted dialog lifted from a Cecil B. DeMille epic (preferably with Charlton Heston as the dad), and some of the flashback scenes (which are not in the book) with Charlize Theron, whose character comes across as unnecessary. However, Hillcoat captures the gray landscape that McCarthy paints so well, and the endless gloom that the father and son wade through. It's the subtle presentation of the apocalypse that "The Road" captures mercilessly which makes the prefab horrors of "2012" look like LegoLand.

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