Sunday, March 14, 2010
The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)
The long and winding
John Hillcoat's The Road is an impressive act of courage--of chutzpah, even. Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel had all the emotional impact, the gravitas, that his previous novel No Country For Old Men, published just a year before, aspires to but fails to achieve (ditto with the Joel and Ethan Coen film made from it).
With The Road McCarthy pares away the baroque action sequences, creates a far more vivid backdrop of depleted America--a few more years of this economic depression and we may be wandering down highways pushing shopping carts as well--and positions at the core of his story the relationship between a Man and his son. The Man refers to a 'flame' that they carry together, and it's fitting and proper that McCarthy doesn't elaborate on exactly what he means by this--that flame with a minimum of effort comes to stand for whatever ideal one might strive for: goodness, humanity, intellectual spark, love. In short, everything and anything one might need to find a bleak hardscrabble life still worth living.
Aside from the foreground figures of a bearded ragged man and his boy, the novel is best savored for its prose: “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” It's sinewy poetry, Hemingway-tough with maybe a good dose of Chandler, but the repeated images of the road as a source of both wonder and horror reveals the true source of McCarthy's inspiration: Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where an adult and youth--Jim the runaway slave and his friend, homeless Huck Finn--love and cling to each other as they explore the vast spaces of America. Perhaps the most memorable repeated passage in the novel is the inventory, either a list of things they manage to scavenge off of abandoned houses and hiding places, or a repeated list of what resources remain: “The binoculars. A half pint of gasoline almost full. The bottle of water. A pair of pliers. Two spoons.” The unnamed Man lays these items out in a row, as carefully and deliberately as Huck Finn will on occasion lay out his meager possessions for a quick assessment of his chances--you feel the kinship between the two quietly desperate souls.
If I think Twain's is the greater work--well, that's partly because Twain deftly weaves into his tapestry that most difficult and delicate of elements (a sense of humor), while McCarthy is pure deadpan serious, partly because for all the novel's appearance of being just lighthearted adventure literature for youths, Twain's masterwork contains dark passages that McCarthy can only wish he might approach, much less match. There is also the novel's prose, rendered in Huck Finn's unforgettable voice--supple, sharp, endlessly inventive; McCarthy's prose, while it strikes many a grace note, looks positively parched in comparison.
Hillcoat's film is an honorable attempt to capture the essence of McCarthy's book. It doesn't quite succeed--the ruins here are as redolent of Roland Emmerich as they are of Hemingway or Twain, plus a true adaptation would need someone able to evoke post-apocalyptic America as a series of vast tableaus, and I can't think of any American director still active capable of doing that (Clint Eastwood? No; his Unforgiven (1992) was memorable for many things, but not wide-open landscapes. Monte Hellman, maybe?). It does capture some of the spareness, the raw beauty, particularly in the forests and fallow fields; with Viggo Mortensen playing the Man, Hillcoat has an actor with a performance style that approximates McCarthy's prose better than any other element in the picture--spare, economic gestures with a leathery countenance.
One wishes the picture didn't waste its time expanding the role of the mother (played here to moving but ultimately irrelevant effect by Charlize Theron); Hillcoat would have been better off having the pair just talk about her, treating her as an absence that haunts them both. One wishes the music (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) were toned down, or eliminated completely--I like to make fun of the Dogme '95 filmmakers and their Vow of Chastity, but movies from this particular genre might have benefited from a little less action-adventure, a little more Dogme style. One might also wish for a sensibility that is both less respectful to the source novel and more unflinching in its treatment of the novel's grimmer elements--when you think about it, Michael Haneke would have been the perfect choice, only he's done all this before. Le temps du loup (The Time of the Wolf, 2003) also deals with a post-civilization society, and while the latter is less explicit (no visible signs of cannibalism, for one), it's also far more disturbing, in the way an act of deliberate cruelty can be more disturbing than explicit violence.
I keep coming back to Huck Finn. Certainly Huck and Jim's love for each other is no less enduring than that between the Man and his son, but in Twain's novel even the very idea of a spark is challenged. When Jim is captured Huck is presented with a choice--to rescue Jim out of slavery, an act that he has been taught all his life to be clearly and morally a crime, or go his own way, an act which he knows is morally right but goes against the dictates of his unspoken heart. You don't quite get that kind of dilemma here in Hillcoat's version of McCarthy's novel--it's pretty much Them Against the World, not Them Against Their Unshakeable Notions of Right and Wrong. I suppose it's unfair to use a classic of American literature, arguably its greatest example, as a cudgel for bashing a film in the head, but it's partly Hillcoat--and beyond him, McCarthy's--fault: they did take a genre with fine, even great, examples and tried to fashion their own. One appreciates the attempt, the same time one can't help but be conscious of the standard it visibly fails to meet.
First published in Businessworld, 3.5.10