Everything in John Hillcoat's adaptation of author Cormac McCarthy's The Road looks impossibly dingy, as starkly shot as the acclaimed novel was sparsely punctuated and as credible a depiction of the world in the wake of an unknown disaster as its fans might've hoped for.
However, Hillcoat's film is faithful to a fault, as a man and his son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, respectively) march dutifully across a scorched landscape, with two bullets in hand and one goal in mind: to reach the coast. Some days, they find food; most days they don't. Some days they find shelter; other days they find trouble in the form of cannibalistic gangs.
And so they journey forth, and forth, and forth some more, with Pops alternating between a 'preserve the fire insideâ?� mentality and an 'eat a bulletâ?� attitude while the kid wrangles with a limited vocabulary and a burgeoning sense of morality.
Joe Penhall's screenplay (the writer's first high-profile assignment) makes a bit more room for dear old Mom (Charlize Theron, as dour as circumstances are dire), even if she still doesn't make it beyond flashbacks with her combination of PTSD and post-partum depression. More often than not, though, we're stuck with only a convincingly haggard Mortensen and an increasingly nagging Smit-McPhee, waiting for them to encounter a shady Garret Dillahunt or a scraggly Robert Duvall.
What was poetic and spare on the page has become monotonous and oppressive on the screen. (It's no wonder that the misleading marketing campaign has been especially keen on slipping explosions and exposition into the trailers that simply aren't in the film.) A novel that earned a Pulitzer Prize is rendered super-slight as a narrative, explicitly crafted to make the most out of misery until its very end, which is itself only about as hopeful as any viewer might want it to be. Conversely, Children of Men took a similar plot and infused it with political relevance, engaging characters, exciting direction and, yes, even a sense of humor.
The Road is so barren, so somber that it threatens to scrape the humanity right off the bone. McCarthy's decision to leave the characters unidentified beyond 'a manâ?� and 'a boyâ?� contributes to the cinematic disconnect. Who are they? We don't know. Why should we care? Because they're there. After all, these trials and tribulations aren't going to endure themselves.
It's drama as duty. You watch The Road to feel bad, to think of the places you'd never want to be and the situations you'd never want to face, and you watch it to feel better, to inevitably emerge after the credits to a world that's at least a little less bleak in comparison. To watch The Road is to endure it, and that's a technical feat in and of itself, but since when was that ever reason enough to take the trip?