Kodi Smit-McPhee and Viggo Mortensen, in 'The Road'

Dir. John Hillcoat
(2009, R, 111 min)
★ ★ ★

It’s rare that I’ve read a book before seeing its film adaptation, so as I watched director John Hillcoat’s The Road I found myself distracted by comparisons with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cormac McCarthy novel that inspired it. Some comparisons are favorable, some aren’t, but I think I might have better appreciated Hillcoat’s images were McCarthy’s not still floating through my head.

The filmed version of The Road shapes up an excellently acted and directed mood piece that would have benefitted from a stronger screenplay. Aided by production designer Chris Kennedy and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, Hillcoat — whose previous film, the Australian Western The Proposition, made me think him well suited to this material — does a great job of translating McCarthy’s rich descriptions into an evocative visual landscape, a vast grey world full of depth and detail. And flashbacks to the beginning of the story’s unexplained cataclysm have the warm, golden hues of distant memories but feel claustrophobic and sad, thanks in part to Charlize Theron, who gives a devastating performance as a suicidal mother minimally defined by McCarthy but fleshed out here in a few brief but affecting scenes.

What the film lacks, however, is the novel’s attention to negative space, the moments between the moments that are crucial to the story’s effect. When the wandering father and son — played in the film by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee — approach a ghost town or abandoned house, or a truck stalled in the middle of an overpass, McCarthy generates tension in the build-up, establishing ever-present danger as his characters balance the need for food and shelter with the risk of encountering “bad guys” looking for the same. The dread in the approach is as important as what happens at each stop. But in the film, scenes merely begin and end. There’s a house. Cut to the characters inside the house. The characters encounter danger and flee, or encounter good luck and stay a while. Cut to the characters back on the road. The film keeps the details relevant to the plot, but excises much of the suspense.

The screenwriter is Joe Penhall, who adds expository voice-over narration that is wholly unnecessary and feels like it was tacked on to answer audience questions that don’t need to be asked, while simultaneously trying to replicate the understated poetry of McCarthy’s prose, but its bloated, thudding language achieves pretentiousness instead of profundity. That is the script’s most severe demerit, though I also would have liked greater faithfulness to McCarthy’s dialogue, particularly in a scene with a wizened old man (Robert Duvall) found wandering alone; the scene in the film is shorter and shallower than the scene in the novel.

I’m not generally a stickler for faithfulness in adaptation — taking liberties with a text is part of the deal when you reinterpret an artwork for a different medium — but when you have at your disposal dialogue as spare and moving as McCarthy’s, you could copy and paste the text and need to do little else; the Coen brothers, who wrote and directed the superb film version of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, described their process of writing it to The Guardian as follows: “One of us types into the computer while the other holds the spine of the book open flat.”

McCarthy’s The Road is not to me a sacred cow and this is not intended to be an enumeration of the superiority of the novel to the film, which by virtue of compression retains the book’s episodic nature but not its repetitiveness. But it doesn’t distill its source material quite the way it could have. I suspect it will play better to viewers who haven’t read the novel. It plays well even though I have, with just the nagging feeling that something is missing.