The Road

The (London) Times’ critics voted this the greatest novel of the 21st century, so far.

I, personally, would go back considerably further because in my opinion there is not a word out of place in Cormac McCarthy’s paean to fatherly love.  As you may recall from my review of the book last year.

The book is defined by the relationship between the unnamed father and son who take to the road upon losing their wife and mother in the wake of an unnamed global catastrophe. (war or environmental catastrophe? You decide, although director, John Hillcoat, strongly leans us in the direction of the latter in his movie.

In fact the movie is also a paean. This time to the novel itself with great tracts of dialogue lifted straight off the page and into the screenplay. This is not laziness. It is common sense.

In most respects I loved this movie; partly because of its stance and conviction in retaining the integrity of a bleak and harrowing novel; so it’s no surprise that the Weinstein’s are behind it.

I won’t remind you of the story, if you don’t know it you’re probably not in the market to see it. If you are and you’ve read the book you have a very difficult decision to make. To fore go it on that basis that perfection in prose cannot be matched on screen or to approach with an open mind assuming that it will fall short of the novel’s greatness but tell a wonderfully simple tale affectingly.

Well, if, like me, you take the latter view you will be in for a treat but one that does indeed fail to reach the novel’s great heights? Why is that? I think it can be explained in one respect. The relationship between father (Viggo Mortenson) and son (Kodi-Smitt McPhee) falls some way short of what was needed to make the film sparkle. and interestingly it’s Mortenson’s fault, not the boy’s. Actually it’s Hillcoat’s. He makes an inexplicable decisions to omit a scene from the book that defined the relationship. When the son runs off to find a little boy he spots in a disused building the father is frantic with fear. Not so in the movie. And actually, although structurally this is a missing link it’s actually in the performance of Mortensson that I felt the whole film fell short.

In the book he is a much more caring and vulnerable soul. On screen Mortenson makes him cold, calculated, hard and emotionally elusive.

It creates a barrier that means the whole movie goes the same way, so much so that I was unmoved at the climax.

There is an astonishing performance in this movie; it’s by Robert Duvall as an aged wanderer that the father and son chance upon. and McPhee is remarkable too. It’s not that Mortenson is not a great actor and fails§ to deliver, it’s just that the direction he receives moves him away from the level of sympathy that I expected and consequently it leaves an emotional hole at the heart of the movie.

I suspect that is why it has failed to garner the critical awards one might expect for such an excellent piece of work overall.

The cinematography is quite beautiful, albeit bleak and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score never intrudes. Hats off to them for reigning it in.

I just wish Mortenson had not followed suit.