The Road (2009)

FILM, Film Society

This week at the Wellington Film Society: John Hillcoat on Cormac McCarthy.

The Wellington Film Society kicked off this year’s season with a blockbuster of sorts, courtesy of the Paramount Theatre. John Hillcoat, following his very good Aussie Western The Proposition, has decided to tackle flavour of the year Cormac McCarthy and his bestseller The Road. McCarthy’s novel became a something of a sensation following its Pulitzer Prize and Oprah Book Club publicity, and after the brilliant film version of his No Country for Old Men. However, the success of the Coen Brothers’ Oscar-winner has eluded Hillcoat’s adaptation, despite the film doing a fine job of translating McCarthy’s bleak vision to screen. The problem, rather, is that it’s unable to smooth over the novel’s flaws, while the clunkiness of the novel has hamstrung the film itself.

The story is set in a post apocalyptic wasteland, where a father and son seem to be the only decent human beings alive. The rest are marauding cannibals, Deliverance-style hicks, and/or starving victims, and the father and son (unnamed), in order to survive, must try to reach the ocean. The story’s biggest flaw is its extremely clichéd narrative set-up and climax—you half expect the appearance of Mel Gibson in leather or Kevin Costner with gills in the midst of what is supposedly a deeply profound take on love in a time of hell. The novel stretched the metaphor of evil and human hell too far for the contrasting ‘love story’ to really resonate (or make us even care about the milieu), and the film struggles in a similar way to make the audience care about this oppositional relationship. Such an obvious contrast smacks of highly contrived sentimentality (to be fair, I prefer the sheer nihilism of McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian, or the terseness of No Country for Old Men).

But the technical aspects are strong—from Javier Aguirresarobe’s brilliant camerawork with its austere palette and striking images of destruction, to the solid performances, particularly Viggo Mortenson in the lead. The supporting actors (Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce), conspicuous in their profile, seem to have had their parts expanded from the book. Theron’s role seems unnecessarily bucolic. The soundtrack, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds/Dirty 3, is bombastic and forces the emotion too strongly, drawing attention to what sounds like a very rushed piece of composing. And while the film may feel and look right, its narrative lags behind, leaving us on a road which isn’t particularly memorable.

Despite my reservations about The Road, there are some definite highlights ahead in this year’s Film Society programme. The retrospective on legendary animator/avant-garde Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren stands out, as does a short season on the Iranian New Wave (including the masterpiece Close-Up), some intriguing modern French films (La France, Heartbeat Detector), and gems such as Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

Film Societies in twelve centres run an annual programme of weekly/bi-monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Further details are available online at filmsociety.wellington.net.nz. For information about a film society closest to you, visit the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies.