It was only coincidence (certainly not by design) that I finally caught up with John Hillcoat’s film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road during the week directly preceding Father’s Day. The book was one that I read with a combination of eagerness and dread, its language sparse and terse yet flowing with pain from which the source is never quite exposed, its subject the emotional connections that must fight their way through an insurmountable tide of nihilism and despair at the end of the world. Ironically, those spare words of McCarthy's often poetically overreached in a backward sort of way, taking aim at eloquent imagery and the dressing up of bleak ideas when a more straightforward style, one which the book embraces at a glance in its own pared down template, might have served better. The movie cannot find its way into the interior landscape of the characters of the Man (and to a lesser degree the Boy) the way McCarthy’s words did, words which had the luxury of spinning and tumbling and fashioning the apocalyptic thunderclouds of McCarthy’s vision at the mind’s pace, a reader’s prerogative, making connections and associations that do not require the verisimilitude of narrative integrity and believability.
Instead, the movie pares the book’s language down to its visual elements, reducing the poetry of language to a few voiceovers, and puts more faith in the poetry that can be felt from the sight of a man and a boy walking down ash-covered streets, amidst burnt-out buildings with the occasional hopeful (and deceptive) glow of firelight, or the figure of that same man standing quiet on an elevated freeway overpass, a truck shattered mere feet away, the location adorned by not a sound other than the choked winds blowing for no one’s relief, as he rids himself of a wedding ring and the last vestiges of a connection to a past which can only now weigh him down. Hillcoat’s movie is quietly astonishing, as was the book, as it succeeds largely by not being able to recreate the extremely personal interpretation of the reader. That experience, Hillcoat understands, is one that cannot be duplicated. His movie works in an existential template pared down from the garish CGI visions of destruction manned by Roland Emmerich and cut with the same despairing vision of an anthropological future that lay subterranean in James Dickey’s Deliverance (and John Boorman’s film of the same). Here several unknown actors roam the landscape in search of food (other humans), and one in particular, Garrett Dillahunt, makes as brilliantly indelible an impression as a roadside predator as Bill McKinley or Herbert “Cowboy” Coward did holding Ned Beatty and Jon Voight captive on the banks of the Cahulawassee.
But it is the piercing blue eyes of Viggo Mortensen, and the way they scan the face of his haunted, confused son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), that convey the real subject of Hillcoat’s movie—the desperation of a father to love, honor, protect and deliver his son, his only real legacy in a world stripped of its own history, by any means necessary. It is perhaps too rigid a distilling of McCarthy’s themes for some, and it may be inarguable that the book is a richer experience. But the movie, being subject to the vivid conflation of sound, editing, acting and evocative cinematography, is every bit the book’s equal in terms of its capacity to overwhelm the audience, even in its mustier moments-- the literal flashbacks to the Man’s life before his wife (Charlize Theron) allowed herself to be swallowed up by the harsh indifference of their new world were better rendered by the oblique remembrances of the book, yet they still work despite their relative lumpiness amidst the bigger picture. And the movie has a kind of boldness that is epitomized by Mortensen’s conviction too—what we’re seeing here is an awful primal drama of two players (and a society) teetering on the brink of extinction, and yet Hillcoat's movie works in its own way, as McCarthy's novel did, without the bombast of the collectively damned. Hillcoat effectively reduces the future of the world down to the gazes between this father and son, the way they huddle together, speak their few words of carrying the fire within, even the way they rehearse their own suicides. The Road is many things, among them a clear-eyed vision of the commitment of a parent to guide a child through a world grown even harsher than he could have ever prepared for, and also an elegy for fathers denied the chance to see their sons cast their gaze on any world other than the grim, troubled, hopeless one they have inherited.
For Father's Day, Matt Zoller Seitz, an exceptional dad in his own right, has a marvelous and moving slide show on Salon entitled "Great Dads in Pop Culture Not Named Atticus Finch"" which you are well-advised to click to and enjoy immediately as part of this day of honoring and remembering yours, mine and ours. Thanks for the heads-up, Matt, and a blissful Father's Day to you, full of all the love you can take from those two wonders you're lucky enough to call your kids.