Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Road

There's no pressure on the long awaited (not to mention delayed) adaptation of The Road. Taken from the masterful Pulitzer Prize winner by Cormac McCarthy and generating impossible hype due to its long suspension in release limbo, it's finally been unleashed on the British public during our grottiest January in years.

That it makes a brilliant transition should be no surprise. McCarthy's terse, tense prose cuts closer to the poetic in relying on a reader's imagination to fill the gaps. John Hillcoat's cinematic take duly obliges in foregrounding the Terence Malick-style austere beauty to be found in a dead world drained of colour. Earthquakes rumble underfoot; trees collapse like matchsticks; and the highways are patrolled by savage cannibals.

However, far from being just a pretty face, it's the essential humanity Hillcoat draws out of McCarthy's text that makes it such a riveting, moving experience. Viggo Mortensen's unnamed Man, along with his (also unnamed) Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), are on a quest to nowhere. Furtively murmuring that they must reach 'the coast' in search of 'the good guys', the future is as bleak and imposing as the sky above them. The needs of the world have been boiled down to the most elemental father-son relationship.

Constantly engaged in a life-or-death struggle, Hillcoat isn't afraid to paint their plight in a broader Biblical vein than the novel did. What it loses in subtlety it makes up for in emotional directness: a neat expansion of the ambiguous backstory reveals the brittle Charlize Theron Mother figure who, in a flipside to the central narrative, loses all semblance of hope and crumbles.

Elsewhere, the power resides entirely in the little details: a first, thirst-quenching drink of Coke, the joy at discovering an underground bunker full of food or a tear spilling down the face of elderly traveller Robert Duvall as he mistakes Mortensen's son for an angel. It's as delicate and poignant a portrayal of decency in the face of oppression as has been seen in ages. The way has been paved, and the bar raised, for the future cinematic apocalypse.

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