The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
That last stanza, and really just those last two lines, of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening’ always struck me as a little bleak; it gives an otherwise pretty poem a hint of something which might be longing or even despair. This adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning novel finds a man (Viggo Mortensen) also possessed of the need to keep moving and the desire to keep promises. We witness him telling his wife (Charlize Theron) that he will “do whatever it takes” to help their family survive the apocalypse which is upon them, and over the 111 minutes of John Hillcoat’s film he is put to that test again and again.
Theron’s part is fleeting, as is that of every other cast member save Mortensen and his character’s son, The Boy, as played by 13 year old Kodi Smit-McPhee. The film boils down to two hours spent in their company as they do little more than try to survive in a blighted landscape. Hillcoat punctuates the journey nicely with set pieces such as encounters with gangs of cannibals or the discovery of a bunker stocked with food, and also with Mortensen’s The Man remembering or dreaming of his life in the Before with his wife. The Man wakes from these dreams with a start and a cry; part of him wishes to relinquish all memory of the past as it causes him such pain. In one scene we watch as he nudges his wedding ring ever closer to a precipice, but in the end he cannot make the final push. This is what The Man seems to fear most: his inability to follow through, to keep those promises. We watch as he instructs his son on the proper way to commit suicide, and listen in as he ponders in voice-over whether he would be able to take The Boy’s life if it came to it. Hillcoat handles this material, all of which he inherits from McCarthy, with a deft hand, never overplaying the heartache nor being afraid to show it when it is required. For all of its post-apocalyptic trappings this is at its heart a love story, and one concerned with that love rarest of all on the cinema screen: that between a father and son. McCarthy dedicates his novel to his own son, and Hillcoat and Mortensen correctly identifies that as the story’s most powerful and most important thread.
Mortensen’s performance is necessarily understated in that his character lacks energy and is sickening as the film progresses, but he is the kind of actor who can do a lot by doing very little. Hillcoat wisely shoots his star’s face in close-up so that we can see all of the expression Mortensen is putting behind The Man’s words (Joe Penhall does an admirable job of appropriating and supplementing McCarthy’s sparse and repetitive, yet beautiful, dialogue). And Smit-McPhee, in his first major role, does exceedingly well with very difficult material, which arguably requires more emotion from his character than from his fellow lead’s. Watching him enjoy his first and probably last Coca-Cola is touching because he reacts with believable joy.
Hillcoat has also assembled an impressive supporting cast, with Michael Kenneth Willams and Guy Pearce doing well with minimal screen time. If there is a performance which outshines Mortensen’s it’s Robert Duvall as The Old Man; restrained but astonishingly emotive and moving he is every inch the defeated old soul that the film requires, giving a glimpse of what longevity might bring for The Boy. Like the film’s protagonists The Old Man is going onwards simply because there is nothing else to do; he provides a possible answer to the Beckettian question which McCarthy is asking: of what value is it to simply carry on for the sake of carrying on?
Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography makes for an oddly beautiful film. Though the landscape in which the story is set is ruined his camera gives it a majesty by allowing us to see the scope and variety of the devastation. His palette is as washed out and bleak in the majority of the scenes as it is vivid and beautiful in the few remembrances The Man allows himself; one simple image of Theron in a sun-dress lingers long after the end credits. The tone of the film is also supported wonderfully by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score. Simple and haunting it is loaded with loss and longing; its composers obviously understanding the heart of the film just as well as its director and leading man. As well as the sad strings and plaintive piano of the score though, Hillcoat makes masterful use throughout of environmental noise. Almost from start to finish The Man and The Boy are surrounded by the sound of the world collapsing, giving in or straining at the seams. The tearing crash of falling trees, the groan and growl of rending earth and deep percussive booms that sound like icebergs breaking apart, all frame the landscape wonderfully and make the environment as prominent a part of the story as it should be.
In many respects John Hillcoat was in a lose / lose situation when he signed on to make The Road. Had he gone for a strict adaptation of McCarthy’s novel it would have made for a practically un-watchable film. Stray too far from the beloved, Pulitzer Prize-winning source and all of its many admirers would be sure to point out his film’s failings. Add to that the fact that the last adaptation of the author’s work (the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men (2007)) won four of the most prestigious Academy Awards and you have a project freighted with impossible expectations. Hillcoat walks this tightrope with admirable surety and he has made a film which is a perfect balance of McCarthy’s vision and his own. It is best enjoyed as a cinematic article, divorced from the source text, but excellent performances and masterful film-making should make that easy.