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The Road
A depressing, bleak movie that could be an Oscar contender.
The Road
Viggo Mortensen Stars in "The Road."
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $12,000,000
OTHER PREVIEWS: Alatriste (7/10)
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

September 8th, 2008: A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don't know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food--and each other.

What to Expect: It's been a long time since I was this excited for a book adaptation, and I think I have to say that after reading advance news and publicity for it, I've never been this optimistic about a film's chances to faithfully adapt the book upon which it's based. The only other book adaptation I've ever had hopes this high for was "Brokeback Mountain," and my hopes were happily justified. Let's hope the same is true here.

This film seems to have been born under a lucky star. Circumstances have magically arranged themselves to ensure that the appropriate people got control of this material. It's spooky, in a way. Like the One Ring that wants to return to the hand of the Dark Lord Sauron, it's like this movie wanted to be made in this way. Aragorn was even destined to star in it. All right, tortured "Lord of the Rings" analogies are over.

Article continues below

First of all, let's consider director John Hillcoat. An independent Australian filmmaker, he pretty much had one credit of significance to his name, the criticially adored "The Proposition." Hillcoat had made the film as a partial homage to one of his favorite books, Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" (which itself is being developed as a film by Scott Rudin and director Todd Field, as part of Hollywood's newfound McCarthy fetish). Naturally, when the galleys of McCarthy's 2006 book "The Road" started circulating around Hollywood in 2005, he snapped one up and fell in love with the story. At the time, McCarthy did not have quite the Hollywood cred that he has now, thanks to the success of last year's "No Country for Old Men," and "The Road" was unproven source material. Most studios passed on the property, being of the opinion that it was too dark for a film adaptation.

Meanwhile, producer Nick Wechsler managed to snap up the rights to the book, and he approached Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner of 2929 Productions, with whom he'd worked before. It turns out that Cuban and Wagner had already approached John Hillcoat about an unrelated project because they liked "The Proposition" so much. The pieces fell into place, and Hillcoat was hired to direct "The Road" before the novel was even published. The task of adapting the difficult novel fell to Joe Penhall, writer of... nothing you're likely to have heard of.

Then, the book was published, and to everyone's surprise, this undeniably bleak post-apocalyptic story became a huge hit, and was even an Oprah's Book Club Selection. It won prizes hand over fist, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has quickly become the gold standard for post-apocalyptic literature. Even director McG is on board. While preparing to film "Terminator: Salvation" he asked his actors to read it, because he wanted them to absorb the bleakness of the world in the novel. Then McCarthy became the latest fad for Hollywood book adaptations after the Coens' success with "No Country for Old Men." The stars seemed to be aligning to favor this book. Hillcoat was even able to cast Viggo Mortensen, his first choice for the lead role, despite Mortenson's jam-packed schedule. Mortensen just couldn't resist the juicy material and the challenging story, and indeed this sort of film is right up his alley.

So, how grim is this story? I can tell you, having read the book, that while it is brilliant, it is definitely up there in terms of grimness. On the wrist-slitting scale of movie bleakness, it's not quite a "Requiem for a Dream" but more than a "Sophie's Choice." It's a spare, brutal, almost fable-like story about an unnamed man and boy wandering and trying to survive in a desolate wasteland that was once the southeastern United States, laid waste by an unidentified catastrophe. They must avoid cannibalistic gangs, harsh conditions and near-starvation as they make their way south, where The Man believes they stand a better chance of finding food and warmth.

The independent production was able to exercise tremendous artistic freedom. Hillcoat once again turned to songwriter and music auteur Nick Cave, with whom he'd worked on "The Proposition" and who also composed the music for "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." The production relied on real-world locations for their bleak landscape, eschewing CGI solutions, and traveled to Mt. St. Helens for destroyed forests, the 9th Ward of New Orleans for deserted suburbia, and abandoned highways in Pennsylvania for urban decay. The promotional material for the film isn't relying on star power, showing nary a hint of famous co-stars such as Pearce and Theron, concentrating on the substance and mood of the film.

In such a stripped-down story, one element absolutely must pull its own weight: the script. Joe Penhall's treatment will make or break this film. The website Quiet Earth, a site that specializes in post-apocalyptic films, claims to have gotten their hands on a copy of the shooting script. While this can't be trusted 100%, what they report definitely jibes with statements released by Hillcoat and Penhall. The reviewer fell all over himself praising the script, so blown away was he by its brilliance. He called it "a brilliant masterwork," and praised its total faithfulness to the novel. Provided this is the real script, the reviewer confidently states that "The Road will not only be the most important post-apocalyptic film ever made but it will profoundly affect the cinema going world." That's quite an endorsement. He reports that within the first eight pages of the script, The Man and The Boy encounter a family of three who have hanged themselves, which barely fazes them since they've seen it many times before, and The Man reminds The Boy of how he's taught him to kill himself, should it come to that. This is a world in which a father must consider having to kill his own son rather than allow him to be eaten. Yeah, that's grim. But grim films can also be good. Roger Ebert says that movies aren't good because of what they are about, but how they are about them. This team of filmmakers and this writer seem dedicated to crafting a well-made film that's loyal to this source material, which has been read by millions. Clearly, the production team isn't afraid of the grim. In fact, by some accounts, they've intentionally made the story more grim than it is in the book, which does provide a few islands of respite, which have been turned into more anxious interludes for the film. They've resisted the temptation to Hollywoodize the book by, for example, providing a more concrete explanation for the state of the world, which in this script remains a vague happening ten years in the past.

One point of contention is the actor who's been cast as The Boy. This is really a two-person cast, the other characters are small walk-on roles, and the cornerstone of the film, and what will make it tolerable, is the relationship between father and son. Many readers of the book are questioning The Boy's age. Kodi Smit-McPhee is twelve, eleven at the time of shooting. The Boy in the book seemed younger, although his age is never concretely established. Hillcoat did audition younger actors, but found that none of them could handle the emotional demands of the role, so he began seeing older boys. Reportedly, McCarthy was consulted and approved of this massaging of the story's timeline. It has also been pointed out that the boy's age is a matter of interpretation of his manner and speech, given the lack of a definite statement on the subject. Regardless, Viggo Mortensen has spoken very highly of his young co-star's talents, and let's hope he's right, because this film will rest squarely on these two performances. Mortensen is probably beyond reproach at this point. He's an actor I would trust with this kind of role in a heartbeat, because he delivers whatever is asked of him, no matter how difficult or foreign. When I heard he'd been cast, I said to myself, "Well, of course. Naturally, it'd be him." Smit-McPhee is an unknown quantity, but that only means that he must have truly given the best audition, so I'm optimistic.

Will this film succeed? I don't know.

I am very confident that this film will be good. Probably excellent. Perhaps historically so. Films that are rapturously reviewed almost always do better, especially in the category of small independent films that depend so much on critical reception and word-of-mouth to drive business. The story's bleakness won't be news to anyone who read the book, and no doubt any reviewer will mention it. Whether this is enough to keep people away is another question. Audiences can stomach a lot of bleakness as long as there is a glimmer of hope at the end, and this story (provided the ending isn't changed, which I can't imagine) does provide that, as well as a satisfying sense of sacrifice rewarded and hope continuing. With good reviews and strong buzz, it could definitely do "No Country" kind of business. With award nominations and possible wins, which seem like a definite possibility, more business could come its way. I feel confident that "The Road" will do good business for the kind of film it is.

In Conclusion: A bestselling if bleak novel being adapted by independent, artistically-minded people committed to the source material and unbothered by meddling studio executives? Sounds like a recipe for indie success to me, but whether filmgoers can handle such a grim story, hopeful ending or not, will be the deciding factor. Either way, this promises to be a film that cinemaphiles can drool over and analyze in deluxe Criterion editions with extensive commentary tracks for years to come.

Similar Titles: Requiem for a Dream, The Mist, 28 Days Later
November 25th, 2009 (limited)
May 25th, 2010 (DVD)

Dimension Films, MGM

John Hillcoat

Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Total: 64 vote(s).

Drama, Suspense

Click here to view site

Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language.

119 min





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