Cheer up, The Road, it might never happen. Oh yes, it did. That’s the whole point. One of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, it was bound to be a fairly bleak film. To be fair, if it wasn’t, then something would have gone horribly wrong on the road from page to screen. If you haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s novel – and I’m no expert, it’s the only one of his I’ve read – I wholeheartedly recommend it, unless you’re in a fragile state: it’s a relentless tale of basic human survival told as a Sisyphean ordeal in which, in some unspecified post-apocalyptic future, a father and son pick their way to the imagined sanctity of the coast, day by day, scavenging for scraps of food and doing their best to avoid other, possibly cannibalistic scavengers. It is a book – and now a film – about fatherhood, or parenthood, and the lengths we will go to to protect our offspring, even when the odds are so overwhelmingly stacked against us, they block out the sky. As I say, not a cheery story.
All credit, then, to director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall, for finding a workable film within McCarthy’s deliberately dead-eyed prose, without sacrificing the nihilistic mood or the paucity of relief available to our two protagonists, played by Viggo Mortenson and 12-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee, who dominate the Picaresque action, while other characters are reduced to cameos (Rober Duvall as an old man, Michael K Williams – aka The Wire‘s Omar! – as a thief, even Charlize Theron, who only appears in pre-event flashback). Hillcoat and his amazing Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe work with a palette of muddy browns and greys that couldn’t even be described as slate – the skies are overcast in this ruined world and the animals are essentially all dead; there are only two kinds of film to be made out of these scraps: a sci-fi action thriller, and an existential meditation. Hillcoat just about steers his through both, although the cleverly edited trailer – surprise, surprise! – suggests the former, by cutting together pre- and post-apocalypse to suggest we might be getting something a bit like 2012. Some hope.
In fact, one day, someone will compare the two films, in detail, and read into the similarities and differences something profound about the damaged American state of mind in the early 21st century. Me? I’m too depressed to do anything. I have seen The Road. I had to go and see something light and frothy and pureed afterwards, to decompress, and cheer up – specifically Nowhere Boy. (“John, meet George, he should be in your band!” – no, really.)
I would heartily recommend The Road (it’s released on January 8), but only with a mental health warning attached. Let’s all have a fantastic New Year. It could be a lot, lot worse.