Allow me to answer the question before it is asked: John Hillcoat’s The Road is as good an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel as we were ever going to get.
Now before diving into the pleasurable minutiae of the film itself, this last sentence needs some unpacking. For me, Hillcoat’s The Road is inescapably viewed through the prism of the novel, the unprovoked visceral experience to be had free of any foreknowledge of the story is left for some other reviewer to describe. In virtually every beat of the story The Road onscreen stays loyal to the source material, and while thematically this is a very good thing, the adverse effect for me personally, is I cannot experience the film on its own terms. More to the point, considering the ambitions of both the novel and the film there is, I believe, an imposed ceiling on what a loyal cinematic retelling could ultimately achieve. Most would agree that a book has certain advantages over a film, but in this regard I am talking about something specific to this story and the chosen style. McCarthy, in his novel, jars the reader into a quite unique literary experience where the sparseness of description and minimalist gestures and use of language create an unease, almost claustrophobic space within which the drama of the story unfolds and each minute act takes on newfound monumentality because of this. The same novelty cannot adequately be achieved in cinema because experimentation of this kind has saturated the language of it, we have entire genres of film that push the boundaries of sparse minimalism, and relative to one’s exposure to these films, the experience can suffer for it. Hillcoat’s The Road does everything right in its ambition to stay true to the material, but its slavish devotion makes it still lesser in my eyes than the book because the effect of the style does not equally transfer between mediums.
Whew. Now, the remaining four stars…
The Road is about a father and son struggling to survive on the brink of human extinction, years after the fallout of some unspecified worldwide catastrophe. Where often the post-apocalyptic scenario affords some kind of new path for existence to take, the world explored in this film has long extinguished any such hope, here you fend off starvation, the elements, and the cruelty of man, in a Sisyphus-like futility to live another day only to suffer more. The Father, hollowed out in the personage of Viggo Mortensen, tells his son to keep the proverbial fire alive inside his chest, and this small gesture of something bigger than oneself exists as a flickering light in a world of unrelenting darkness. And so is the point. As each day brings on new afflictions to our heroes, and they move forward nonetheless, the sublime sensation of what it is to face death and embody life grows stronger. In this rotted world of expired hope, when bestial existence takes over and the limitations of one’s humanity are tested, the very question of what it is to be human is answered.
I loved every minute of this film, and was floored by how well my visualizations of the book were embodied onscreen through the deft handling of Hillcoat and company. Everything from the performances, to the sets, to the minimal score, to even the smallest of props, all made this one of the more believable post-apocalyptic depictions in recent memory. I was, however, surprised to discover just how many events actually occur in the story that, unfortunately, when presented in a two hour film, undermine any hope of adequately reproducing the languid tedium that the book plays off of. Still with each new encounter the dramatic tension was raised, and though aware of what would happen in the basement scene, I was still unnerved by its payoff. While every performance in the film worked for me, Robert Duvall as the Old Man was especially effective. And of course there is Viggo in full-on Christian Bale mode here as a spindly phantom of himself, chewing on crickets and running buck-naked with as much abandon as any actor has ever given to a role. Most satisfying of all is that the film never cheats its audience, never gives in to any kind of easy resolve to its situations, but continues McCarthy’s sadistic trials and tribulations as they pan out throughout the movie.