John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, arrives in UK cinemas with the weight of expectation heavy on its shoulders: can it possibly live up to the hype which sold the novel, words such as “masterpiece” and “classic” thrown at it like confetti?
The Road introduces us to the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they forage through the sodden remains of a post-apocalyptic future for food, shelter and some kind of future.
Convinced that the pair should head for the coast, the Man pushes a shopping cart full of their worldly possessions as they dodge groups of scavengers intent on attacking anyone who gets in their way.
As they encounter the dead and dying remnants of humanity, the question of what is good and bad hangs heavy over the two, their resolve tested as the need for food and water grows.
Clearly, no version of The Road was never going to be an easy watch and it’s to Hillcoat’s credit that his direction, working from a script by playwright Joe Penhall, tries hard not to soft peddle McCarthy’s vision of this degraded future world.
In fact this is very much Hillcoat’s film, the viewer drawn into a dreary, dirty and decidedly damp world which it’s far too easy to believe has resulted from some unnamed global disaster. We’re never allowed to forget that this a Bad Place, Hillcoat ramming the message home with every painstakingly grim shot of ruined skylines and dead trees.
Holding the film together is Viggo Mortensen, his matted hair and sallow features genuinely uncomfortable to look at in the many close-ups peppered through the film.
Mortensen’s emaciated appearance is highlighted by the use of flashbacks to his life pre-disaster. The Man’s relationship with the Woman (Charlize Theron) is given more prominence here than in the source material, allowing us to watch as she gives birth to their son and starts to doubt the sanity of living in a world where she and the boy could be raped and murdered at any moment.
For the general Friday night audience perhaps not predisposed to post-apocalyptic nightmares, these glimpses of normality were clearly perceived as vital to the narrative, but they also threaten to neuter some of the darker edges, pulling the viewer out of the moment.
Still, any chance to take a breather from almost certain death is surely to be welcomed and there are odd moments of humour present, notably when Robert Duvall’s Old Man is introduced. Duvall is almost unrecognisable here, a weary traveller whose appearance foreshadows what could become of our “heroes” a few years down the line.
Elsewhere, the aforementioned scavengers, spotted in the distance attacking innocent women or shown returning from hunting trips to tend to their stocks of human food supplies, are sadly pushed off-screen as fast as they arrive. This may again be consistent with the novel but these sequences add some tension to the film that would have been interesting to see developed.
With a performance from Smit-McPhee which doesn’t grate – he also bears a passing resemblance to Theron under that hat – and a musical score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis which is nicely understated, this is a perfectly adequate adaptation which won’t upset the fans too much.
Whether the film works as a standalone film is another matter and it’s almost a shame that it has to carry the burden of forever being so closely associated with the novel: it would have been fascinating to see what else Hillcoat and Penhall might have been able to add to this new world had it been their own creation.
The Road is released in UK cinemas on Friday 8 January