Middle of ‘The Road’

By David Orlikoff

The world has gone gray. The apocalypse came and snuffed out all life from moss and lichen on up the food chain. It’s been months since you’ve seen another human being and that thought fills you with dread. After all, your flesh is some of the last remaining digestible material on the planet. Suicide becomes more alluring as the threat of cannibalism—or


Such is life in director John Hillcoat’s The Road, adapted from the acclaimed Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. But Hillcoat’s rendering shifts the focus from dystopia to melodrama for reasons unclear.

The score by fellow Australian and long-time collaborator Nick Cave is misused and distracting. Dull lilting piano refrains conjure the image of a bored child stuck indoors while it rains. For one three-minute period

Cave begrudgingly allows us a grungy industrial rock song. It’s about the only time music completely clicked. Though heavy handed, the score never becomes sarcastic—that’s not a compliment.

Characters with names like “Man” and “Boy” form obvious symbolic archetypes as the film follows the mode of literature. But this contrasts again with the depth of specificity surrounding the acting and emotions that become central to the viewing experience. Viggo Mortensen plays the Man who has reserved his own existence to protecting and preparing his Boy. His emotional range is impressive as he confronts the many and varied obstacles before him. His face serves as a counterpoint to the barren landscape. But how seriously can we take his pain when he is little more than a symbolic man? He represents the old order, unable to succeed in the new world, though tasked with bringing up the next generation. His late wife represents human pain and loss wrapped in harsh practicality that cannot rationally justify this new tortured existence. And Boy, who “carries the fire inside,” is of course a new hope. Born into dystopia, he is tasked with finding a way out for humanity.  They walk the titular metaphorical “road” south—to salvation

or judgment.

These themes and many others might have been best left for the novel. When the travelers meet an old man or a thief, the audience is interested in the literal interaction more than the figurative. There is enough meat in terms of power, fear and social order not to have to resort to symbolism. Symbolism has its place, but The Road just isn’t The Seventh Seal. There are many reasons why it doesn’t work, which have more to do with the audience than the production.

Expectations for this film fall in line with its predecessors like 28 Days Later to Children of Men. But is Hillcoat at fault for doing something slightly different? Yes, when it makes for a less enjoyable film. A post-apocalyptic film should be a visceral experience. It should draw the audience in early and expose the exquisite decay of the new world. It becomes an emotional experience for the viewer as much as the characters. Whatever meaning we take from it is tied back to our non-apocalyptic lives in retrospect. This is the FDR model for bottom-up dystopia. Hillcoat dubiously subscribes to Reagan’s top-down approach, beginning with the meaning and ending potentially with something cinematic.

The narrative structure further hinders accessibility. The first 20 minutes are like a game of temporal ping-pong. At one level ,this allows us to see the juxtaposition of life before and after and robs us of any comfort going in. It also confuses and distances the audience from the on-set. It’s as if Hillcoat knows what people want and tries to keep viewers from falling into the world and becoming cemented in the experience.

The hypothetical apocalypse described is still compelling. The Road is a fresh, though not definitive, take on the genre.