Although it’s clear that The Road (2009; dir. John Hillcoat) takes place in the southeastern United States, beginning in the Appalachians and moving towards the Atlantic coastline, geography and place matter only incidentally. Civilization has come to an end through some unspecified disaster. It’s not culture, or the wealth of centuries of human achievement, that the two main characters are struggling to preserve. They’re struggling to preserve their own lives, struggling in a sense—at least the father is—with the idea that their lives are worth preserving. The few remaining members of the human race are organized in savage bands, killing and cannibalizing the stragglers they encounter. The father and his young son try to avoid discovery by these bands. They keep heading south, towards the coast, towards some rescue that we know, that at least the father knows, is not there.
As dark as this film may be, the 2006 novel by Cormac McCarthy on which it’s based is even darker and more brutal. The film preserves a few of the darkest moments from McCarthy’s story, for instance the departure of the man’s wife, the mother of his child, who has decided that there’s no purpose to their continuing struggles to survive. She knows that if they’re caught, which she believes will inevitably happen, she and the boy will be raped, that they’ll all be killed and eaten. She wanders off into the woods to kill herself. Another instance is when the man and boy discover people held captive in the dark basement of an abandoned house. The people are naked and filthy and faded in color, so that they hardly appear to be human. They’re livestock awaiting slaughter as food for their captors. Mostly the film focuses on the lonely trek of the father and son towards the southern coastline.
The film lacks the rich, stark language of the novel. In its place the film uses vivid images of a devastated landscape, of ravaged, incinerated cities, of empty human skeletons. While the man and the boy in the novel have a kind of generic, anonymous quality, so that we can imagine them as we will, the film personalizes the two through the actors who portray them: Viggo Mortensen is the father and the mostly unknown Kodi Smit-McPhee is his son. Charlize Theron portrays the mother, primarily through a series of brief flashbacks. None of these characters are given names. Although the woman’s character is somewhat more prominent in the film than the novel, her role is essentially the same. All three actors are excellent in their roles, for the most part evading sentimentality or bitterness, though it is bitterness that drives the mother to suicide.
The difficulty with a film such as The Road, based on a well known and widely read novel, is that those viewers who have read the novel can never view the film on its own terms. They must always see it in the context of its source, almost as a kind of appendage. This is not to suggest that the film should not have been made—it should have been—nor that readers should avoid the novel if they plan to see the film. It is simply to acknowledge a matter of fact—the inseparable link between the two forms. Although some may disagree, it seems to me inescapable that if one sees The Road and finds it successful or at least interesting one will necessarily seek out and read the novel on which it is based.
Admirers of McCarthy argue about whether there is cause for optimism when the novel ends and the boy, his father having died, is taken in by a family—the only other family in the story. The world is still dead, or at least dying, and there is little hope of its recovery, unless one takes the novel’s final paragraph, a vivid description of a trout swimming motionless in a stream, as a foreshadowing of the future rather than a memory of the past. There is no such moment in the film, unless one counts the small beetle—still alive--that the boy discovers late in the film. In the film the boy is also rescued by a family—a man, a woman, and their two children. The man agrees that he is carrying the fire—that he and his family are the “good guys.” The boy wants to be assured. Carrying the fire, being the good guys, these are the terms the boy’s father uses when he talks to his son about keeping moral values alive—values of virtue, of civility—even though he makes clear to the boy that he will resort to almost anything to protect his son, even though the boy is the only way these values retain any meaning for him. The man’s struggle not to abandon those values is a central theme of the novel and film.
The film version of The Road offers no more hope for long-term optimism about the boy’s survival or the fate of the human race than the book does. But because the film ends with the glimmer of a smile on the boy’s face as he agrees to join the family that is offering him protection, and because the viewer—this writer at least—will seize on any evidence that allows him to avoid complete nihilistic despair, the film in a small and muted way offers faint hope.
The film is a reading of McCarthy’s novel. In general it preserves the major events, themes, and emphases of its source. The changes that Joe Penhall’s screenplay makes to McCarthy’s story are for the most part not major and do it no disservice. There are differences. The language of the novel has a vivid intensity that the film lacks. The novel gives special emphasis to garbage—garbage is all that is left of human civilization. McCarthy makes this most clear when the father (who may have been a teacher) finds the rotting books of what was once a library and realizes that the sodden pages are all that remains of the great monuments of human achievements. Garbage is the novel’s metaphor for environmental and self-destructive human recklessness. The film offers many scenes of ruined buildings and garbage and smoking cities but doesn’t make as much of them.
Robert Duvall makes a brief appearance as a wandering old man whom the father and son briefly encounter on the road. The boy insists that they share food with the old man. Duvall’s brief appearance is the best moment in this generally remarkable, deeply sad, and melancholic film.