I’ve never claimed to be prescient when it comes to the world of literature – more content to use my energies on what’s in front of me rather than what’s coming up – but I do have to admit I feel rather smug whenever I think about my take on “No Country for Old Men.” When I first reviewed the title back in 2005 I predicted that the Coen brothers (who had just acquired the rights) would make a powerhouse film, their directing techniques perfectly matched with Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant gift for minmalist dialogue. And I was completely right, as the film would go on to not only take four Academy Awards but also turn out to be one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve ever seen.
As a result of this success, I kept a close eye on the approaching release of “The Road.” Expectations were high – the 2006 novel received the greatest critical acclaim of McCarthy’s career and even earned him a Pulitzer Prize – but there was some uncertainty as “The Road” is a completely different animal to “No Country for Old Men.” It is not McCarthy’s typical Western with soft-spoken protagonists and open plains, showing one event and the consequences it brings, but the end of the world with no uncertainty. It had to hit despair and hope with equal measure, and while it doesn’t quite match the book’s connection it is a technical and emotional success nonetheless.
At first glance, the story of “The Road” seems like it will be simpler to adapt. After an unspecified disaster, the world has been reduced to a desolate wasteland of ash and snow, where nothing will grow and the few remaining humans travel in cannibalistic packs. In this world a father and his son continually walk south to the coast with no supplies save the contents of a shopping cart, no weapons save a pistol with two bullets and no company but each others’. The theme is once again survival, but money doesn’t matter here – all that matters is the indomitable will of one person to keep another alive.
However, while the story is easily summarized and the cast can be counted on two hands, filming “The Road” has one hurdle to climb beyond any technical aspect: atmosphere. Winner of my Silent Hill Award for Bleakest Setting, “The Road” may well be the most grippingly immersive book I have ever read. This isn’t the tension of pursuit but the cold certainty that everything around you is dead, with skeletal trees and ashen air and corpses dried to leather as if there was “some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” Compounding the loneliness, the reason for the apocalypse is never even touched on – the only thing that matters from the world that was is whatever it left behind for you to survive on.
The atmosphere of “The Road” is such that, even in the hands of a director like John Hillcoat (no stranger to broken lonely worlds himself with 2005’s “The Proposition”) it can’t be transferred completely. While a film can project the scope of what has happened to the world with long scenes of death and the worse-than-homeless condition of its survivors, the pure despair always feels just out of reach. It’s especially noticeable due to the quality of McCarthy’s words, brief dark sentences that all add up to show how little there is to be said in the face of nothing.
But while the film cannot match the level of despair the book has, that doesn’t mean it fails at drawing you in – quite the opposite in fact. Hillcoat has expertly crafted “a world in severe trauma” as he described it to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, filmed in the bleakest ares of Pittsburgh’s coal country and the sides of Mount St. Helens. The cinematography is beautiful in a sad way, with spilled matchboxes of dead trees and ashen decay on every farmhouse, and rare glimpses of color in canned food or bullets coming across to the father and son as artifacts to bond over.
And perhaps more the atmosphere, it was mastering this relationship that would make or break “The Road” – and set it apart from “No Country for Old Men.” While the first one was heavily reliant on longer dialogues between three complex main characters and a cast of officers and civilians, “The Road” distills McCarthy’s gift down to only the father and the son, two people bound by an eternal pact and whose few words hold more meaning than any longer speech.
Thankfully, this relationship is treated with all the reverence it deserves. Viggo Mortensen cannot help but inhabit a role with every fiber of his being, and he brings the father to life with tenderness to his son and tightly wound caution toward the rest of the world. His interactions with his son (the excellent Kodi Smit-McPhee) are all transferred from the book, and there is an undeniable connection in each scene: sharing a scavenged Coca-Cola, bathing in an ice-cold waterfall, explaining the right way to shoot yourself in the head.
The film’s supporting cast, though defined only in their relationship to the father-son dynamic, also captures the book’s feel admirably. Charlize Theron as the wife is appropriately angelic in the Man’s fantasies and fatally broken in his memories, although her role has been expanded from the book and in several places the stretching shows. Robert Duvall steals the film as the Old Man on the road, half-blind but still able to see the world’s end, and HBO alums such as Garrett Dillahunt (“Deadwood”) and Michael Kenneth Williams (“The Wire”) capably carry the roles of the future’s predatory wanderers.
In an advance review Tom Chiarilla of Esquire said there was “not a single stupid choice made in turning this book into this movie,” and it’s hard to argue with that statement. From a technical perspective, it captures all the right notes from its source material – characters, conversations and storyline – and from an emotional standpoint its only fault is that it’s trying to reach the impossibly high standards of McCarthy’s eloquence. “The Road” is frightening, captivating and makes you need to hug your parent or child afterward – and I apply that statement to both versions.
For more on McCarthy’s relationship with his writing, his son and the films, check out these absolutely phenomenal interviews with the master himself.
- Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy, by John Jurgensen, Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2009.
- Cormac McCarthy’s Apocalypse, by John Kushner, Rolling Stone, December 20, 2007.