Sunday, December 27, 2009

After the die-off: notes on John Hillcoat's The Road

"Behold the valley of slaughter"--graffiti on a billboard in The Road

"The clocks stopped at one seventeen one morning. There was a long shear of bright light, then a series of low concussions. Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road. I think it's October but I can't be sure. I haven't kept a calender for five years. Each day is more gray than the one before. Each night is darker - beyond darkness. The world gets colder week by week as the world slowly dies. No animals have survived. All the crops are long gone. Someday all the trees in the world will have. The roads are peopled by refugees towing carts and road gangs looking for fuel and food. There has been cannibalism. Cannibalism is the great fear. Mostly I worry about food. Always food. Food and our shoes. Sometimes I tell the boy old stories of courage and justice - difficult as they are to remember. All I know is the child is my warrant and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke."

So says "Man" (Viggo Mortenson) early on in John Hillcoat's The Road, the too faithful film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. I've been a fan of the novel since its first publication in 2006, so when I got to see the movie last week, I had high expectations. Hillcoat effectively recreated the Man's action-packed encounters with cannibals, but in spite of Viggo Mortenson's best efforts, the film tends to emphasize the weaknesses of the novel. Some notes:

1) Merriam-Webster online defines "die-off" as "a sudden sharp decline of a population of animals or plants that is not caused directly by human activity." As mentioned in the quote above, most animals on earth die at the beginning of the book and the movie for no clear reason (although one can presume that the catastrophe is man-made). And yet, later a bug and then a (spoiler alert) dog (?!) appear at the Disney-esque conclusion of the film. The film, like the book, is indecisive, unrealistic, and murky about the destruction of nature. It reminds me of Dan Archer's point about the political implications of apocalyptic thinking: "Those who believe that we are living in endtime feel no concern about for the environment because it has no future." Given its contradictions, The Road hasn't fully thought through nature's role in this kind of storyline.

2) Even given the extreme unlikeliness of all of nature dying whatever the reason, The Road depicts a human die-off. With ballooning numbers of our species on this planet and its inability to sustain our population given its limited resources, a human die-off strikes me as inherently plausible. It has happened in various times in human history such as on Easter Island, but what form would a mass human die-off take? Will it be caused by disease, war, starvation, or a combination of all three? To its credit, The Road takes an unflinching look at that possibility.

3) McCarthy's novel immerses the reader in the Man's actions. We often don't know what he's thinking, so we can wonder about what he will do next to survive. Since the film doesn't have time for that kind of narrative momentum, Hillcoat tends to dwell on the relationship between the Man and his son, which tends to make the film more sentimental. The boy keeps asking things like "Are we the good guys?" and "Are we gonna die?" and so on.

4) As the Man and his Boy work their way south to the beach, fighting off cannibals when needed, starving, and pushing a grocery cart before them in the grey-filtered gloom, I got annoyed with the film's relentlessly grim tone. Their extreme deprivation gives the film its dramatic impetus, but except for small moments of pleasure (they enjoy a rare can of Coke--post-apocalyptic product placement), the film is unrelievedly bleak and earnest. The movie hasn't enough human playfulness to balance out the gloom.

5) For instance, when a redneck cannibal gang shows up in a big truck, one can't help thinking of the similar gang in The Road Warrior, but the ones in the Mad Max series had a b-movie flair, a twisted fashion sense involving brightly colored mohawks and bondage gear.
In comparison, the cannibals in The Road are just dreary ragged creeps with bad teeth. More realistic? Yes, but somehow less interesting cinematically.

6) In Children of Men, Theo enjoys smoking dope with Jasper or popping a ping pong ball back and forth by mouth with Julian. In The Road, by comparison, the Man is a consistent killjoy survivalist. His exceptionally beautiful unnamed wife (Charlize Theron) decides she wants to die early on because many of the other families are doing it (peer pressure suicide?), but the Man does not. Looking pained, he earnestly wants her to live, and they debate it for awhile. But no, she has to walk off into the darkness symbolic of her death. Later, an Old Man shows up (Robert Duvall with lots of dirty makeup) to say things like "I knew this was coming. They were warning us" before he weeps at seeing the boy because it reminds him of "heaven." The soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis tends to consist of the same three piano notes. At one point, the Man and his Boy wake up in a ruined church with a prominent sunlit cross overhead. The filmmakers seem so eager to convey the old testament Biblical cadences of McCarthy's novel, the film ends up awed by its prophetic self-importance.

7) By the time the Man approaches his end and gives his son his few last dying words of wisdom ("Don't eat people. Carry the fire within," etc.), I had had enough. I can only take so much portentous post-apocalyptic schmaltz, no matter how solemn and faithful to the novel it may be.


Hokahey said...

Yes, it's solemn and faithful to the novel - but not in the right way. I was disappointed that the film didn't use voiceover narration taken right from the novel. Instead, the narrative is paraphrased. McCarthy's enigmatic, elusive prose is what this film needed.

As for any sort of playfulness to offset the gloom - well, that would be as Disneyesque as the dog at the end. The Road needs to be grim.

I love the novel. I enjoyed the film, but its striking cinematography needed to be accompanied by McCarthy's words.

FilmDr said...

I agree that the film is too faithful to the novel, but I still think that the Man would have more of a range of emotions. That's why I prefer Zombieland to all of the ponderousness of The Road. There can also be exhilaration in witnessing the destruction of civilization, as one finds in the two versions of I Am Legend.

MovieMan0283 said...


Just to let you know I'm developing a lazy - er, democratic - way to compile my year-end round-up. I hope you'll submit your favorite self-penned posts of the year so I can pick one and add it to the list. Personally, I very much enjoyed the film-class diaries from early in the year but I've admittedly missed a lot since then with my haphazard blogging, so surprise me!

Here's the relevant link:

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Movieman. Will do.

Anonymous said...

Okay first of all, I respect your comments, but i do feel that you may have slightly missed the beauty of what the film does do, and with Hillcoat's work in general. The bleakness is what makes it beautiful, if the father was popping of to get high, or if the cannibals were straight out of mad max, as you seem to suggest, the film would be laughable to say the least. The film shouldn't be about just surviving, the fact it goes into the relationship between the boy and the man (for me the most interesting part of the book) is one of the strengths of the film.

If the film were too take your direction as stated above, all you would have is another boring, cliched, Hollywood post apocalyptic film, and not the amazing refreshing piece of cinema that we have now.

The strength of Hillcoat's work is that he takes a recognisable genre and makes it new and different (look at his film The Proposition), and i feel if he didn't then cinema today would be a lot more dull, and predictable.