Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Road (movie review)

Nearly two years ago, I read The Road. I started late at night, home alone, sober. Three mistakes. By the time I finished I barely wanted to relinquish the quasi-fetal position I'd assumed on the floor, let alone go to sleep. Strange as it sounds, though, this is a glowing review. I can't remember the last time a book moved so much with so little.

Almost one year ago I added the novel to a class I teach. I'd never taught anything like it, and I was not at all sure it would work. I tried to strip my pedagogy down to the austerity of McCarthy's prose, posing just one question per class, the first and most persistent being "What's the difference between surviving and living?" Surprisingly, the students took the meager bait and ran farther than they had with litanies of questions on other books.

Around the same time as my teaching experiment, rumors of the movie's release began to seem serious. Then mysterious delays were announced. I waited. Summer came and went. I waited some more. Fall came, and was nearly spent before we were told, finally, definitively, that the movie would open the day before Thanksgiving--which sounded like a tasteless joke but wasn't.

About a month ago, Banjo52 offered a review of the movie, which I avoided reading lest he give something away.

Last week, I tried to see the movie with a friend while visiting family for the holidays only to find it wasn't playing anywhere nearby.

Today, finally, I saw the movie myself.

The good news: though there are several significant changes from the novel in terms of action and dialogue, and virtually no narration survives, there's nothing wrong with anything about the adaptation. There's nothing wrong with it as a movie in its own right either. I know this sounds like terminally faint praise, but 95% of movies I see have at least a couple fatal flaws in realism, consistency, subtlety, etc.

More good news: some real imagination went into the scenery and filming, including some of the best computer-generated shots (grounded ships, vacant cities) I've ever seen. In fact, much as less is more with this story, I wouldn't mind more such shots.

The pace is slow, as it should be, yet it feels a bit busy somehow, as if the director is afraid we'll get "bored" with the emptiness. But McCarthy works so hard precisely to achieve that emptiness, that fatal boredom, that banality of everything, that I think it's a mistake to make the movie world so visually stimulating. More importantly, perhaps, I wish there were more obsessiveness over physicality--which largely means pain. We see a lot of fires, for example, but we never see the man struggle to build one. We hear about his preoccupation with food and shoes, and we see filthy, haggard faces, but we don't really feel the urgency of hunger, the way it gnaws at the mind and soul as well as body. I've done a lot of camping, and I know that it's the little rituals that make or break you: cold hands rolling up a tarp, lumpy ground against hips and shoulders, stiffness of knees after sitting. So few movies do justice to these kinds of details. (Castaway came close, in the first half.) McCarthy is such a physical writer, almost to the point of self-parody at times, that I hoped for more of this from the film. Less color wouldn't hurt either. Less music, or none at all, would be a major boon.

One thing we could use more of--but don't ask me how you do this on film--is blood, brutality, cannibalism, deformity, horror. There's not a huge amount of it in the novel in terms of pages, but they are some of the most teeth-chatteringly awful scenes I've ever read, forcing my students to think twice about the question "Is anything worse than death?" The environment seems more of a threat in the movie than man, and I'm not sure that's the right balance.

Some little oddities: there's a scene in the trailer of a newscaster narrating as the world comes to an end that never appears in the movie. Prob. just as well, but I don't think I've encountered such a disjuncture before. What we do see in the movie is Viggo awake to fire out the window, get up to look, and, with laughable calm, proceed to the bathroom to fill the tub with water. This is true to the novel in letter, but silly in spirit: the pacing is much too quick, emotion flat, as if he simply said, "Huh. It's the end of the world. Guess I'll go draw some water," without any hesitation or reflection. Unrelated gripe: the piano bothers me. I love pianos, and I don't mind the addition, as it makes for a nice motif and gives Viggo a rare chance to give in to grief, but I can't see any reason why he'd take an axe to it. The one thing that doesn't seem lacking throughout the story is wood. (Besides, it would be pretty hard to attack a piano without ruining your axe.)

Somehow Charlize Theron worked for me, even though she's really far too pretty. One of my main reservations about the story is the idea that a mother would kill herself while her son lives. This remains a problem in the film, I think, but somehow Charlize's beauty causes it to make a bit more sense, as if she doesn't quite belong with the man in the first place, let alone in the hideous new world.

As for Viggo, those eyes just ruin it for me. His acting is fine, but there's this self-conscious "special-ness" about his face usually reserved for cheesy made-for-TV movies about Jesus. Of course neither he nor the boy looks nearly thin enough. The boy works very well; though decidedly too old at first, he transitions beautifully toward the end into a being somehow more responsible, sober, mature.

I had just assumed that Robert Duvall would play the rescuer at the end, to the point that I'd imagined him quite vividly and successfully into that role. His appearance as the much less important geezer earlier was therefore more a distraction than it should have been. Too good a show of acting, oddly, and far too much makeup. I sympathize with Banjo52's reservations about the ending, but it's almost exactly rendered from the book--though the man should have had a bad eye and been older, the children were excessive, and the dog just silly. (Even dedicated non-cannibals would surely have eaten the dog, which begs the question, did Viggo and Charlize eat their horse?)

The verdict: see the movie, but don't neglect reading the book. It's true that I almost always prefer the book version, but this really is a special case, because so much of the novel's power comes from its language. Written with scarcely a verb in sight, Shakespearean-style inversion and Biblical diction, it almost drove me away, but after I persisted through ten or twenty pages, I became seduced.


  1. Excellent review. I had not intention of seeing the movie, but now I might. Which movies have been better than the book -- interesting to pursue. Last Year in Marienbad springs to mind...

  2. Well, my movie's better than my book. I meant "no intention."

  3. Thanks.

    Movies better than books is a very short list, but now you've got me thinking...

  4. Barbaro, I find this a GREAT review. There are points I might wonder about, but only a few, and they are legitimately debatable (I'd have to write as much as you did to cover them all--probably a sign that you're saying important things).

    I think my favorite parts here are the personal details--aspects of camping and teaching, for example. I keep intending to do more of that with my posts on poems or movies, but they get too long.

    In short (oops, too late for that), thanks for an intelligent, enjoyable read and a good take on the movie. If I get to the book after all, you get the credit.

  5. Beth is always recommending this book to me, but now you've totally scared me off! Though one of the things I really like about Tolkien is the mundane "dead time" he covers in detail while they're just sitting around in winter waiting and preparing for it to be spring so they can continue on their quest. I doubt you'd ever get published doing that today--or that many authors today would be able to pull it off.

    While I haven't seen The Road, your reaction to Viggo Mortensen intrigues me, because there's something about his face that looks inherently untrustworthy to me (not creepy, like Christopher Walken always looks--just kind of shifty and unreliable), which bothered me all through Lord of the Rings (although I have friends who totally have the hots for him). Based on looks, I'd have cast him as the other guy who gives in to the allure of the Ring in the first book, not as the hero.

    Tragically, there are mothers who kill themselves while their sons live. I know someone this has happened to.

    Gratuitous piano-smashing? Boo, hiss!