Cormac McCarthy has been well-served by the movies recently. Some literary critics have looked down on his two most recent novels, the best-sellers No Country For Old Men and The Road, as unworthy genre exercises, which may explain why they've proved so adaptable to film compared to, say, All the Pretty Horses. Rather than dismiss these popular books as thriller or fantasy, respectively, critics might be better off thinking of them as parables, especially once it sinks in that McCarthy is making at least one argument in both novels. Both books, and both movies, are critiques of rugged individualism from a professedly conservative perspective. The hunter in No Country is doomed, arguably dooms himself, because he won't accept help and thinks he can deal with all the drug dealers and hitmen himself. As if he thought he hadn't made the point plainly enough the first time, McCarthy restates it in a more allegorical context in The Road. The father is a moral man and teaches his son the right lessons, but seems to have lost the meaning of some of them himself. He claims that he and his boy are "carrying the fire," but the boy eventually questions where and to what purpose they do so. The father claims, with much justice, to be one of "the good guys," but the son recognizes that his righteousness has shaded into self-righteousness. Father and son still live by a moral code (i.e., they don't eat people) but the father has lost focus on anything other than his own truncated family's survival. While he fights to purge his memory of painful memories of past ties, the son strives increasingly to reach out to others. He understands, either by instinct or by thinking through implications of his father's teachings that the father himself has forgotten, that carrying the fire and being a good guy are meaningless unless they are directed toward some goal larger than yourself or your family. The son, seen as an angel by an old vagrant and called a god by his own father, represents humanity's small hope for both survival and redemption because he proves the survival of a social instinct or impulse. The tragedy of the story is that the son can only act on his best impulses after his father has left the scene.
Director John Hillcoat and writer Joe Penhall put this across quite effectively. I worried about Hillcoat as the director after seeing The Proposition, which if anything looked like an audition for adapting McCarthy's grotesque western Blood Meridian. The production delays didn't inspire any additional confidence. But while critical and public response seem to have judged The Road a failure I found it an essentially faithful adaptation. It's a stark film that could have been still more stark. I could have done without both the music and Viggo Mortensen's voice-over narration, as both tend to distance the viewer from the enormity of the father and son's predicament. I also think it was a mistake to open with the day of the event that ends civilization, a scene that is shown in flashback in the middle of the novel. But Penhall may have thought that we'd identify with the father more if we recognize him as someone forced from normality into his ordeal rather than some indigenous denizen of the film's blasted landscape. Despite these early missteps, the story retains its power and may well be idiot-proof. Events don't occur in the exact order I remember from the book, but The Road isn't so meticulously plotted that the changes harm the story. As for Hillcoat's tendency toward grotesque violence, he's actually quite restrained here. He passed up the opportunity to film the novel's most horrific scene, for instance -- the cooking of a newborn baby. He may not have had the resources to film the book's most expansive scene of devastation, the father and son's trek through a city center and hundreds of cars with corpses in them. There's still plenty of nasty stuff, most notably Mortensen's discovery of an abattoir full of naked human cattle for slaughter, but the film's real horror is in the unrelieved bleakness and near-emptiness of the ruined world.
The biggest innovation in the screenplay is the expanded role of the protagonist's wife, who appears in flashbacks throughout the film, including scenes original to the movie of the couple's pre-apocalyptic life. This might be written off as "heart interest" or something to keep female viewers interested, but Penhall seems to have more in mind than writing a part that justifies Charlize Theron's overqualified presence. Keeping her as a consistent presence in Mortensen's mind reminds us of his struggle to forget the past. It also prods us to ask what exactly drives the husband to survive, to compel his wife to bring a baby into a world where the living all too often do envy the dead. His wife wants to kill herself (Theron and Mortensen are denied the novel's powerful dialogue on Death as a lover) and many of their friends had apparently done so long before. Why is life so much more important to the husband that he would try to endure what so many find unendurable, and bring a helpless child along for the ride? Could it be something as simple as a selfish desire to see his seed go on? Is that all he really means by carrying the fire? The point of these questions isn't to question whether the protagonist is the good guy he claims to be. He is a good guy, but McCarthy's message, and the film's, is that there's another level of good that the hero's morality doesn't reach.
Mortensen isn't quite the protagonist I envisioned when I read the novel. I expected more of a hard man, closer to a counterpart to the hunter of No Country. That doesn't mean it had to be Josh Brolin, but there's a softness sometimes to Mortensen's performance that may fit with the film's vision of his constant struggle to harden his heart but doesn't quite match my memory of the book. But he is very good much of the time, and I also liked Kodi Smit-McPhee as his son. This was one time when I could appreciate a child actor who whines and cries a lot, because the boy's weakness and sensitivity are crucial to the story. Theron gives what her part requires (though one can imagine her surviving quite well in a different sort of post-apocalypse story) and Robert Duvall is uncanny in his brief appearance as a broken-down survivor. I get the impression that The Road is being bypassed in the new-year rush of lists and awards, but movie lovers shouldn't overlook it. At the very least, it's a strong antidote for anyone who imagines the end of civilization as a fantasy land of fighting and freedom. It might make a good second feature for the more popular 2012. Better still, maybe everyone who went to that should be made to see The Road.