The one thing I remember about Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Road" is the color gray.
Gray is everywhere in the novel, which takes place in a world that has been decimated by an unspecified disaster. Grey ash covers the ground and the characters live under barren skies. The snow is a grey, sooty color and even the ocean has ceased to be blue. It's a desolate, barren world in which a young Man and his Boy traverse a largely-abandoned road, looking for the sea.
If there's one thing Director John Hillcoat gets absolutely right in his adaptation of the novel, it's the gray. Filming largely without the help of computer generated effects, Hillcoat found burned out, ravaged areas of Pennsylvania and surrounding states to recreate a ravaged, dying world where the trees are empty and dying, stalled vehicles litter the roads and starving, hopeless families have taken unspeakable measures to either survive or escape the horror.
The other thought I had upon reading McCarthy's novel is that it was unfilmable. The writer's sparse prose and ungilded dialogue gives the story much of its weight, demanding readers to create the world in their mind and providing a poetry to the narrative. Few writers pay as much attention to the actual craft as McCarthy and he's the rare wordsmith who is able to create such a compelling tale through so few words.
I walked away from "The Road" realizing I was right: in a certain sense, "The Road" is unfilmable. No movie will ever be able to perfectly realize McCarthy's writing because film provides us with images that McCarthy powerfully evokes...something is bound to be lost in translation.
But Hillcoat comes as close as one possibly could to bringing "The Road" to the screen. While it's not the perfect adaptation that Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" was, "The Road" retains the book's solemnity and quiet and delivers a difficult, brutal and yet surprisingly moving and beautiful meditation on humanity, grace and hope. Just two weeks after "2012" turned the end of the world into spectacle where millions of people died for our amusement, "The Road" captures the sadness and profundity of what it may be like to be among the last human beings on Earth and moves us over the plight over a father and his son.
Much of the film's success comes from Viggo Mortensen, perfectly cast as The Man. This decade has been one in which Mortensen has proven himself as one of the most versatile and dependable actors, able to lose himself in a role be it that of a noble man ("Lord of the Rings"), a father with a brutal past ("A History of Violence") or a vicious killer ("Eastern Promises.") Here, haggard and gaunt, caked in grime, the Man is a walking skeleton, exhausted and on the brink of collapse. But his eyes light with anger, grief, passion and intensity when it comes to the one thing he has left: his son, with whom he is walking the road and teaching to grow up right, to "carry the fire" of goodness, humanity and dignity in a world that has thrown those things aside in an effort to survive. The boy, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, at first doesn't do much more than register shock and worry as they trudge through the world. But as the father's words sink in and he begins to apply them, there's a fierce anger in the child's eyes as he questions his father's own stubbornness and refusal to treat others kindly in favor of survival.
Of course, one couldn't blame the Man for holding on so tightly and violently to his son. In flashbacks, we see glimpses of the life that existed before the world went gray--ironically, the first image Hillcoat shows us are blooming trees and verdant fields. The Man had a wife (Charlize Theron) who was pregnant with the Boy when the clocks stopped and the fires started. We see her begin to unravel and lose hope, desperately not wanting to give birth to a child in such a dismal world and then finally, when the Boy has grown, leaving and not coming back. The Boy is all he has, the only thing that makes the Man human and gives him hope ("If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke," the Man says in voice-over).
Hillcoat, whose previous film ("The Proposition") also dealt with the plight of desperate people in a hopeless landscape, does not flinch upon showing us the horror that exists in this post-apocalyptic world. Those who survive have largely thrown off humanity in favor of survival, robbing, raping, killing and eating those who still survive. For the most part, Hillcoat shies away from showing us the most brutal and disturbing aspects, alluding to them through a splash of blood or the carnage that remains. But a visit to a farmhouse--possibly the most horrifying sequence in the novel--remains intact, as terrifying and disturbing a moment as any I've seen on the screen this year.
But Hillcoat doesn't exploit the novel's darker moments and turn this into "I Am Legend" or "2012." Rather he's more interested in the same questions McCarthy poses: can The Man and The Boy survive and keep their humanity intact? And, when the time comes, will the Man be willing to kill his son in order to spare him a darker fate?
And while the film, like the novel, is grim, its peppered with moments of surprising hope and subtle beauty, as the Man and Boy experience unexpected graces. A can of Coke. A bunker stocked with food. A hot bath. The memories of mother. A quiet interlude with an old man (Robert Duvall) in which the existence and compassion of God are called into question.
Even more touching is the story of fatherhood that weaves through this story and the moral questions it provokes. For the Man is not simply living for his child to survive. He wants his child to "carry the fire," and grow into a man who does the right thing. When the child asks if they will not eat anyone no matter how starving they get, it's moving because the kid has a deeper problem than survival. The first moments with the old man and an encounter with a thief on the side of the road become occasions for the child to surpass his father in terms of morality, compassion and warmth. In the later sequence, I recalled Christ's words to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us and turn the other cheek and found tears welling in my eyes at the beauty of this child. If the world were to end, this is they type of boy I'd hope was left.
In the end, the film succeeds not because it recaptures the power of McCarthy's novel (it never could) but because it recaptures the humanity of the story. It presents us a grim, barren and hopeless world and then asks us if goodness and hope can still exist. In such a dark and harrowing tale, I was surprised to find a warmth in my chest as that question was answered.