Peter M Howard ::

The Road

29Jan2010 [movies]

In which a Man and a Boy carry the fire

The Road is one of those novels that's fairly short, easy to read, and gripping enough that it's hard to put down. I read it last year in three short sittings over as many days. It never really feels hurried though — the story builds and we're only slowly told anything about the past (and we gradually learn that whatever actually happened in the past isn't really relevant).

Given it's a fairly quick read, it survives conversion to film fairly easily. The film loses the slow build, and some of the feel of journeying, and of being on the road, but it captures the mood of the novel perfectly.

The story, such as it is, is incredibly bleak. Reading the novel was a depressing experience, and left me dazed for a few days as I teased it out in my mind. Watching the film, I found myself tearing or choking up at the same points, and the ending still left me dazed.

It's not a huge spoiler to say that the story's ending is very ambiguous. Though the Man dies, the Boy finds a Family. It's left open though, and it's unclear whether the others actually have good intentions. Interestingly, when I read the novel, the ending felt relatively happy, as though I was identifying with the Boy and his relentless trusting in other people. In the film, the ending felt more downbeat — the Happy Family feels like such a caricature that's it's downright creepy. When the film just cuts to black one is unsure how to react; the audience I was with just sat in silence through the final titles (beautifully stark black on white still titles, without any sound).

As an adaptation, the film is a success. It all looked and felt just as I'd imagined. Some of the supporting cast I'm not sure about — recognising Guy Pearce caused a brief shock; Charlize Theron was perfect in the pre-catastrophe flashbacks, but didn't really pull off the post-catastrophe moments, as a young mother destroyed by the thought that she'd brought life into a dying world. But the Man and the Boy were the important ones, both in terms of screen time and story, and Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee were perfect. Their relationship carries the film, and the two are well cast and are great actors.

The whole thing is a credit to the direction of John Hillcoat. (Hillcoat previously directed the Australian "western" The Proposition, which I now have at the top of my DVD queue). For the most part the film is beautifully cut; it supports the tone of the story perfectly, though a couple of early scenes with messy cutting and poor comping didn't really sell the post-apocalyptic wasteland as well as the rest of the film. The sound design and music is great — subtle and moody throughout, and it makes excellent use of silence.

If you can, take a few days to read the novel before seeing this one. It's not a case of the novel being better than the film, which is remarkably refreshing, but reading the novel first really will enhance the impact of the film.

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