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we’re on the road to nowhere

kirsten krauth: john hillcoat, the road

Kirsten Krauth is a freelance writer and editor specialising in film and the arts with her business Freckle Features. She is currently working on her first novel.

The Road The Road
WINNER OF THE 2006 PULITZER PRIZE FOR LITERATURE, CORMAC MCCARTHY’S THE ROAD WAS A BOOK THAT SURPRISINGLY CAPTURED THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION, KICKING READERS IN THE GUTS WITH ITS POST-APOCALYPTIC VISION OF A FATHER AND SON DESPERATELY SCAVENGING TO SURVIVE IN A SAVAGE WORLD WHERE ALL SENSE OF MORALITY HAS BEEN ANNIHILATED. MCCARTHY FAMOUSLY DECLINES GIVING MANY INTERVIEWS (PERHAPS WISELY: SEE YOUTUBE FOR A RARE ONE WITH OPRAH WINFREY) BUT HE HAS DEDICATED THE NOVEL TO HIS SON, SEEING IT AS A LOVE STORY—THE KIND OF AFFECTION THAT CAN BE SHAPED BETWEEN A MAN AND HIS BOY.

McCarthy’s books have been ripe for the picking. The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, starring Tommy Lee Jones and a bewigged Javier Bardem, was one of the more memorable films of recent years, but The Road doesn’t appear at first to be an easy novel to adapt to screen. For starters, it’s unrelentingly bleak. The despair, agony, horror, barely lets up. Like Cold Mountain (from the novel by Charles Frazier, director Anthony Minghella, 2003), the endless walking on uncertain soil, the rain, the loneliness, the tension over whether to trust strangers, makes it a constant grind. It’s also an incredibly internalised fiction—the monologue of a man who doesn’t talk much, staggering along a road in a wasteland with his son, searching for food and fuel. In the novel the majesty of the sparse prose elevates it to the poetic at times, making certain moments ambiguous (a device the film struggles with). And you can always put the book down when it gets too much (which I did. Often).

Australian director John Hillcoat’s style is well-suited to this tale. His feature The Proposition (2005; RT 70, p18) was an outstanding exploration of violence and the horrors of Australia’s colonial past. Here, transposed to the near-future, he conveys the same intensity in a world where all characters are lost and searching, in a landscape so desolate that to be able to choose to die is a luxury. He brings along some of the same cast and crew from The Proposition (Guy Pearce in a pivotal role; editor Jon Gregory; and production designer Chris Kennedy and costume designer Margot Wilson) and an evocative soundtrack created by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The music, combined with the outstanding cinematography by Spain’s Javier Aguirresarobe and faultless set direction, make for some unforgettable scenes of environmental destruction: the creaking of dead trees in the wind, always threatening to fall; a series of earthquakes where they are uprooted, almost killing the man and boy; ridges on fire climbing above them; abandoned freeways hovering above empty rivers; an ocean of grey water lapping onto lifeless sand. The film landscape becomes a world completely without sunlight or colour, except of course for the rare glimpses the boy observes: rainbows in a waterfall; a Coke can with bubbles he savours; a cellar treasure trove of tinned food like peaches and fruit cocktail.

Hillcoat comments: “Neither Chris [Kennedy] or myself have ever really liked apocalyptic films that much as a genre. But this felt so different from anything else...we immediately began doing a lot of research in which we were basically looking at man-made and natural disasters that have occurred, and that’s what led us to things like New Orleans post-Katrina, and Mount St. Helens in Washington and mining in central Pennsylvania and around Pittsburgh where that industry left a kind of man-made disaster area in terms of the landscape—what’s left of it. So the process was about utilising all those things and gradually piecing it all together. It was like this huge tapestry.”

Vigo Mortensen (as The Man) and Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Son) are superb in demanding and, at times, difficult to convey roles. Along with their packs they carry the burden of the film on their shoulders. Mortensen is always strong, drawn to characters with a sense of justice, often compromised by violent circumstances (the David Cronenberg films, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) and he has that rare combination of physical strength and deep sensitivity. Smit-McPhee proved he could explore complex emotions well beyond his years in Romulus, My Father (2007) and here his despair, fear and sense of loss are carried in the way he walks and the questions he asks (“Are we still the good guys?”). While his father is teaching him to distrust others (to save his life), the boy resolutely maintains a belief in compassion, a lesson that pays off. Their situation is so dire that much hinges on the gun the father carries and the number of bullets it contains. Each bullet is a little ray of hope: rather than die in a horribly sadistic way (be starved to death; raped; eaten slowly by roaming vigilantes) there’s an easy out. It’s rare in a film to be considering that perhaps the central character, a small boy, may be better off dead rather than facing such a world on his own (as his mother believes before she walks into the snow in a light shirt to freeze to death) and these are the choices the father must grapple with.

With the film’s release date postponed for a year from November 2008 in the States, you get the sense that the distributors might be nervous. Perhaps they think such a film might be a hard sell in a world where people have enough bleak visions surrounding them. But McCarthy’s book is wise enough not to state how the world has come to this dire position. Questions hover over the entire film. Why? How? The same questions being asked now about the economic crisis. About the impact of climate change and habitat destruction. About how we treat refugees. About the kind of environment we want our grandchildren to be born into. Hillcoat’s film doesn’t give any answers. But the questions raised are enough.


The Road, from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, director John Hillcoat, writer Joe Penhall, performers Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce. producers Paula Mae Schwartz, Steve Schwartz, Nick Wechsler, editor Jon Gregory, production designer Chris Kennedy, cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, original music Nick Cave, Warren Ellis. Opens nationally Jan 28.

Kirsten Krauth is a freelance writer and editor specialising in film and the arts with her business Freckle Features. She is currently working on her first novel.

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 26

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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