Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review: The Road

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit McFee share a joke in The Road.

Caught up with this one on dvd.

The Road is an adaptation of a novel by Cormac McCarthy which I spent about a year reading at the laundromat. It's not a long book but I kept getting frustrated with its prose style. While you would expect a story of a father and son trekking through a landscape of post-apocalyptic despair to be solemn McCarthy's prose just trowels on the grey concrete until the end. So when I heard that John Hillcoat was directing the adaptation and putting people like Charlize Theron, Viggo Mortensen and Robert Duvall in front of his camera and maximising the use of outdoor locations and minimising the CGI I thought: I bet it'll be better as a movie.

I was right. And the first thing that told me so was not the cinematic staging of the world of the story, the charred but frigid landscape, the massive conflagrations and loungeroom-trembling audio that gave a very present meaning to the earthquakes that happen in the story. No, what told me that the film would be better than the book was the performance of the dialogue. Most of the dialogue in the novel is the man answering his son's questions about the world, the way they have to live, their goals, nature etc. There is so much of this and it is presented so solemnly that it's so hard to care enough through a page that your washing load can go through an entire cycle before you're finished. McCarthy's prose has that precious sombreness that irritates me about almost every high profile American writer from Hemingway on, a kind of whispered reverence hushed by even the most mundane of events or experiences. So when the following exchange happens on the page I hear it delivered in a quiet monotone:

"Are we the good guys?" asked the boy.

"Yes," said the man, "we're the good guys".

When Kodi Smit McFee asks the question above he sounds like a little boy who really needs to know the answer. And when Viggo Mortensen answers, it's "YES, we're the good guys!" It's natural and paternal, a genuine response from a character who is confronted by the question but still needs to reply with reassurance. That's why this film is a better experience than its source material: it simply makes me care. And when couched in some strong cinematic imagery and soundwork it makes for an excellent example of why mainstream filmmaking can still be effective and matter to me as a viewer.

But it's not all good. Part of the solemnity of the novel is its religion. As an atheist from childhood I can find religious expression in others untroubling and often quite engaging. I'll never convert to it but the airing of beliefs simultaneously alien and familiar can be compelling. So it is with The Road, the man's religious conviction is frequently tested and he meets the tests with both a flat honesty or a wide eyed denial. Nevertheless, the novel's use of this theme is to its author's credit for its subtlety (until the end which might well be either a nasty irony or a genuine hope). Hillcoat has allowed so much of this into the film, however, that it progressively marrs the tale, it goes unquestioned and seems left to hang in the assumption that its audience will be in solemn agreement, their heart perhaps beating toward bursting with communal joy. One scene showing the pair eating around a campfire in safety ends in a wide shot revealing they are in a church, bright inspirational light blasting through a cross shaped window. Potential classic became well made bullshit in one shot.

And then there's the music score. I hate orchestral scores in most films (mainstream or not) as they always sound jobbingly rote. Here's an opportunity to get some tough sounds to harden up the probable sentimentality of this father/son journey, some musique conrcrete derived from the settings. Wouldn't take a lot of imagination just some judicious field recording and a little style with the editing and shaping. But no, we get a slushie with extra syrup; big banks of strings everytime something important happens as though the imagery needed extra coating (it doesn't, it's very powerful by itself). And what Hollywood hack perpetrated this fastfood film music? Goth rocker Nick Cave and improvisational Dirty Three maestro Warren Ellis. It's flat, routine, passionless sludge that for me knocks points off. You mean these two between them couldn't have come up with something ... real? The music was one of the only good things about the try-hard garbage of The Proposition and it was the same team. What happened? Were The Necks busy?

2 out of five for putting in more religion than the book had and the automaton score.

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