Why do cannibals travel in groups? If the world as we know it does indeed come to an end, and people are driven to eating their fellow man to stay alive, what is the advantage of working as a collective? Would you be willing to sleep next to someone who willingly eats human flesh? Clearly, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my survival plans for when the apocalypse eventually goes down. Sadly, the answers to the aforementioned questions are not provided in John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s end-of-days novel The Road. Instead, the film focuses on conveying the overwhelming dread of a horrible situation. Although, it does provide plenty of handy tips for any future ‘Judgement Day’ journeymen. For instance, “never leave your shopping trolley of supplies unattended, lest Omar from The Wire steal it from you.”
As far as plot goes, there is little to discuss. A man (an incredibly effective Viggo Mortenson) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), traverse the ash-drenched American terrain following some sort of apocalyptic event. We never learn what this particular disaster was, how it was caused, or even if it is finished. What we do know is that pretty much all flora and fauna has died, very few people are still alive, and there is little food left for even the few survivors (hence the palate shift towards humans). The man and the boy are devoted to their singular mission: stick to the road and head to the coast. All of their problems will be solved once they get to the coast. Sure they will.
The duo encounter several other survivors during the course of their journey, some friendly and some particularly unfriendly. The young boy is willing to trust and befriend these fellow travelers, perhaps unwisely. The man doesn’t trust anyone, and is prepared to murder if he feels even the least bit threatened. He’s wiser in this regards, but I certainly would never envy the psyche of a man without humanity over a boy with too much. As their plight grows more and more hopeless, the man toys with the two remaining bullets left in his gun. Killing a dangerous cannibal is one thing. But if worse comes to worse, will he be able to put his son out of his misery?
McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is a short read, but an unforgettable one. Some of the imagery the legendary author evokes, particularly through his unique and often poetic prose, surpasses anything a filmmaker could capture on screen. However, Hillcoat does his best, and for the most part, he succeeds. The horrifically desolate landscape and the drab greys and cobalt blues of the scarred sky pervade every shot. Screenwriter Joe Penhall also manages to retain much of the book’s thematic focus, particularly in the way that the audience is asked to question the humanity of the man. I mean, when I say it like that, the film doesn’t exactly sound revolutionary in its thematic exploration. But trust me on this. The book, and now the film, poses some of the most interesting questions about the nature of morality; whether or not it must remain consistent always or whether it must be adjusted to suit our environment. Mortensen is perfect as the once-uncomplicated man dealing with these impossible questions.
That being said, the film simply cannot match the achievements of the book. In an effort to retain some of McCarthy’s prose, a lazy narration pops up every so often, with Viggo’s Man reminding the audience of his hopeless quest. For the last time, any screenwriters adapting a book for film, you need not take paragraphs wholesale from the original text and dump them into the film via narration. Whether you are adapting Leo Tolstoy or Charles Dickens or Alice Sebold or Stephanie Meyer or even Jodi Picoult, leave the prose to the pro’s and show us the emotions of the characters.
Perhaps even more misguided than the narration is the inclusion of the man’s wife into the proceedings. In the book she is mentioned only as a fleeting memory, but here she is presented in several flashback scenes, played by Charlize Theron. Her inclusion feels tacked on, and her appearance can’t match her haunting presence within the book. However, Theron is great – as always – and she does provide the film with one of its most upsetting sequences; no small feat in a movie featuring a human meat locker.