Middle-of-the-Road: Neither horrific nor disasterrific, this Cormac McCarthy adaptation takes the path of least resistance

The Road

The Road
Directed by John Hillcoat.
Written by Joe Penhall.
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall.
Now playing at multiple locations.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oprah-endorsed post-apocalyptic survivalist prose poem — in which a father and his ten-year-old son traverse a despoiled landscape of unspeakable horror — was a quick, lacerating read. John Hillcoat's literal adaptation, which arrives one Thanksgiving past its original release date is, by contrast, a long, dull slog.

Taken as a Hail Mary flung from the Weinstein Company bunker, The Road has a certain pragmatic integrity. (While aimed at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it's being strategically released by the Weinsteins' genre label Dimension.) Fidelity to the material is not the problem. On the contrary. Freezing, starving and dodging cannibal marauders, The Man (earnest, increasingly Christlike Viggo Mortensen) and The Boy (stolidly whimpering Kodi Smit-McPhee) follow the novel's keep-on-keepin'-on trajectory (apparently to Florida's Gold Coast), "carrying the fire" of human decency, as well as a gun loaded with two suicide bullets.

As a director, Hillcoat is certainly credentialed to handle this unpleasant saga. The Proposition, his 2006 Australian outback oater, was a savagely miserablist tale set in a dry-gulch hellhole of ferocious carnage. Although mildly sanitized, The Road has its grim frissons — as when The Man and The Boy escape The Redneck Slaughterhouse of Terror or discover The Last Can of Coke. But there's a bizarre absence of dramatic tension. One can either embrace McCarthy's laconic tone or ignore it — Hillcoat does neither. For all the added bad-guy assaults or earthquake-induced Attack of the Falling Trees, his Road never eludes its weighty pedigree — pale by comparison to an action thriller like Children of Men or gross out eco-catastrophe like Land of the Dead, squandering its ready-made zombie scenario. Where McCarthy was free to focus on how a post-human world might feel, Hillcoat is compelled to illustrate these impressions and organize them into a coherent narrative.

Perhaps only a visionary genius like Andrei Tarkovsky or a heedless schlockmeister like Michael Bay could have handled the book's combination of visceral terror and mystical reflection. Ultimately, Hillcoat's The Road is less a disaster (or post-disaster) flick than a sort of global death trip — intended possibly as an audience ordeal in the tradition of The Passion of the Christ, complete with redemptive ending and regularly articulated life lessons. All meetings on the road are potential parables, every repetitive exchange between The Man and The Boy is presented as a mantra, and the appearance of a rheumy, putrid Old Man provides a gabby cameo for guest star Robert Duvall.

The Road's long and winding path to the multiplex might make a more fascinating saga than the movie itself. That the 2008 version was evidently deemed too bleak for audience consumption may account for the presence of Mortensen's lugubrious, voiceover croon and the ruminative keyboard doodling used to soften every other scene. In addition to the obtrusive Nick Cave and Warren Ellis score, The Boy's dead mother, who regularly appears in The Man's thoughts in the tawny, distracted form of Charlize Theron, is at one point playing the piano.

Other memories of Life Before include gauzy close-ups of flowers, trees and the family horse. The latter is a nice touch, although my favorite addition to the novel is the close-up of the post-apocalyptic puppy that appears in the movie's final scene. It's a last-minute Christmas card reminiscent of the voiceover that opens Sam Fuller's Vietnam-set China Gate: "In this ravaged city where people are starving, all the dogs have been eaten except one."

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