SHORT TAKE: “The Road” (**1/2)

Posted by · 7:54 am · September 3rd, 2009

The RoadTelluride Film Festival

There is a moment maybe three quarters into John Hillcoat’s “The Road” when it becomes clear that atmosphere may have been preferred over characterization: Viggo Mortensen’s character — known simply as “The Man” in Cormac McCarthy’s original fiction and nameless here — sits by a fire, wary of a cataracts-ridden old-timer (Robert Duvall) who couldn’t defend himself, much less harm a child.

Rather than soak in the opportunity to finally, for the first time in who knows how many years, have a simple discussion about life, sons, the world, whatever, he holds a steady, paranoid gaze on the man, protective of his boy (Kodi Scott-McPhee), the idea of The Man’s deteriorating sense of humanity hammered home precisely.

It’s an element of the film’s thematic conceit, to be sure, one present in the book (though not as embossed), but it comes at the expense of what would be natural.  Of course, “The Road,” both on the page and on the screen, is meant as symbolism in more than a few instances, but what may have worked in one’s mind, reading McCarthy’s easy-going prose, has been lost in translation here.

This should take nothing away from Viggo Mortensen’s work as an actor in the film, which is considerably moving.  It isn’t his finest work yet and probably doesn’t deserve the claims of “tour de force” that are waiting to be tossed about, but it is a refined piece of acting nevertheless.  However, the effect is muted by Mortensen’s co-star, Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose shrill embodiment doesn’t take on the messianic quality to which the role clearly aspires.

Duvall marks a high point for the film, and if one can get past the overstatement in the rendering of Charlize Theron’s character, there are some intriguing moments to be found in that performance as well.  (In fact, on that front, “The Road” makes for a fascinating companion piece to “Precious” where duty to one’s children is concerned.)

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have provided musical accompaniment as stark as the narrative.  A minimalist’s approach is employed, but the emotion is certainly there.  Meanwhile, the film’s dystopian design elements are all top notch, Javier Aguirresarobe’s photography meticulously capturing every detail.

But ultimately, the tale itself feels doomed as a piece of cinema, forever confined to a more effective state on the page, where it knows only the limits of your imagination.  Here, it is a wandering sort of entertainment that doesn’t know whether to be shocking or profound.  Ultimately, it is neither, leaving merely a bleak residue of style in the shadow of potential substance.

(Read Guy’s thoughts on “The Road” from Venice here.)

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35 responses so far

  • 1 9-03-2009 at 8:10 am

    Jilpen said...

    So besides how you may feel about it, could you see it as a potential contender? And in what categories?

    Oh…and can you hook us up with a Precious review…please. :)

  • 2 9-03-2009 at 8:14 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Wow, same star rating, and same choice of adjective for McPhee’s performance. It’s not often we’re totally in sync like this.

  • 3 9-03-2009 at 8:28 am

    Dreams said...

    Is this awards worthy or not? In what categories? Are we talking about a possible Viggo’s nomination or not?

  • 4 9-03-2009 at 9:25 am

    Ivan said...

    Xan Brooks from The Guardian thinks The Road is a **** .

    Ok, mixed reviews begins…

  • 5 9-03-2009 at 9:46 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    so Kris one question, better or worse then inglorious basterds in your opinion???

  • 6 9-03-2009 at 10:47 am

    Rae Kasey said...

    Well that’s unfortunate. I loved the book and was hoping they’d have gotten things straightened out after all of the delays.

    Ah, well. There are always a few that disappoint.

  • 7 9-03-2009 at 11:44 am

    david said...

    I’m still excited to see it…haven’t actually read the book so maybe I’ll be able to appreciate the film on it’s own terms. I loved Hillcoat’s work on The Proposition so maybe I’ll find more value here then most.

  • 8 9-03-2009 at 11:57 am

    El Rocho said...

    Honestly, I am very disappointed with the review. I was hoping the film would be better. McCarthy’s book is one of the best I have ever read, and probably will ever read. It’s just brilliant. And I expected the film to be lesser then the book (how could it possibly be better?) but I still expected it to be thrilling, terribly moving and unfliching in its depiction of lonliness, fear and isolation, dependence on each other. But from what I read, it did not do that at all. From what I read as well, Mortensen’s performance was to be expected. Nothing overly compelling but strong and worthy of a nomination. Sad to hear that the boy actor didn’t deliver. But it is a hard role to take on either way. I’m still pissed off with the idea of flashbacks for Theron. Pointless! But I guess that’s their artistic right.

    Echoing the others’ questions, Kris, what’s the Oscar potential you feel The Road could gather, and in what categories? Admittedly, I had this pegged for Best Picture, but it doesn’t look so much so now.

  • 9 9-03-2009 at 12:55 pm

    Bill M. said...

    I saw The Road at a test screening a couple months ago in NYC. Big fan of the book, I liked the movie but I wasn’t in awe of it either.

    Nominations: Picture, L. Actor, Cin, Editing (?), Ad. Screenplay (?)

  • 10 9-03-2009 at 1:04 pm

    Tyler said...

    this coming from a guy who gave Basterds 2.5 stars

  • 11 9-03-2009 at 1:09 pm

    alex said...

    Good to know that Theron managed to do something interesting with such a tiny part.

    I think she will have a very long and successful career in movies.

  • 12 9-03-2009 at 1:19 pm

    head_wizard said...

    This isn’t too much of a surprise I tried to figure how you could tern so much atmosphere and interanal issues into a film. it sounds like they tried but couldn’t make that leap in the end. Idoubt anyone could have made this work.

  • 13 9-03-2009 at 2:39 pm

    Kevin said...

    I guess I will have to go out on a limb and disagree with Kris and Guy on this one. Their observations are not without valid points, and certainly bring up legitimate concerns. I however, must offer my thoughts on the subject.

    I just got back to the hotel after having seen the film and attended the panel, and I can’t help but feel that the negative reviews are a little unwarranted, but not entirely unexpected. It’s not the most audience-friendly story out there as far as cinema audiences go. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. Things go from bad to worse, and the tiny moments of relief are very quickly turned bad by the crushing reality of the situation. That, and I think people are being a little unfair in terms of their expectations on how the film would works as an adaptation. The novel has so much prose and no chapter breaks. The most enthralling aspect of the book is the imagery McCarthy evokes in his descriptions. That, in my opinion, was one of the two most powerful aspects of the book. To be honest, no film adaptation was going to be able to live up to McCarthy’s narration. But In my opinion, the cinematographers, art directors, costume designers, set designers, and visual team as a whole did a knockout job of attempting to recreate a visual representation of McCarthy’s world. There’s no denying the visual quality of the film.

    The second thing that made the novel so incredible was the emotional connection the reader developed to the man and the son. Again, with so little dialogue present in the novel and so much inner thoughts going on, there is a nearly insurmountable challenge for the writers and actors to attempt to establish that same emotional connection. Luckily, Viggo Mortensen delivers a performance that really solidifies his position in my mind as quite possibly the most underrated and incredibly talented actors working today. His performance in the film is incredibly moving and recreated the sense of determination yet futility that is present in the character as one read’s the book. He understands that his mission o get to the coast is a fool’s errand, yet he continues on, determined to get there nonetheless. Mortensen’s haunted expressions and soft, raspy whisper only add to this.

    When I reached the emotional climax of the book (which I will not spoil here but those who have read the book know exactly which part I am referring to), I had to put down the book and sob. In fact, I sobbed uncontrollably. I have never cried so hard in my entire life. All over a book. When this same scene happens in the film, I thought I had prepared myself and would be able to contain my emotions even a little bit. No such luck. Same exact emotional response I had when reading the book. For me, the power of that scene is worth forgiving any flaws the film may have in terms of it’s transition form page to screen. Yes, I missed the prose by McCarthy. Yes, the film didn’t quite have the poetic and elegant feel that the book did. But in a way, I knew it was going to be a nearly impossible task to adapt such a work to the screen. Yet, for me, everything that was done well was done so well that all flaws were forgiven. The emotional power of the film isn’t sentimentalism or manipulative filmmaking. It’s all due to Mortensen’s performance and the overall atmosphere created.

    Don’ be so quick to count this one out, these are early reviews and the film has a little over a month to sit in the mind’s of critics. A couple of mixed or negative reviews aren’t going to doom this from being a great film. Give it a shot and don’t fret.

  • 14 9-03-2009 at 2:55 pm

    tony rock said...

    I’m not worried…yet. I’ll wait for the critics. Have we already forgotten Inglourious Basterds? Tepid response from Cannes and Kris alike, and now look…

  • 15 9-03-2009 at 3:01 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Tyler: See Kevin’s response for an example of how a smart person disagrees.

    Though in response to Kevin, I should say that I don’t write a negative review just because a film isn’t “audience friendly.” I have legitimate artistic beefs with the effort. At the end of the day, I just think the film proves that the story isn’t a cinematic one. Or wasn’t adapted in a way to make it a compelling piece of cinema.

    Variety has panned the film, FYI. Neither here nor there, but I’m sensing a split.

    That said, just because someone dislikes a film doesn’t mean sentiments like “I’m not worried” or “don’t fret” need to be tossed about. They should, after all, go without saying. See the film, make up your own mind, simple as that.

  • 16 9-03-2009 at 3:29 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    Kris better or worse then Inglorious Basterds

  • 17 9-03-2009 at 3:35 pm

    tony rock said...

    Kris, people say things like “I’m not worried” and “don’t fret” in regards to their feelings toward the film’s Oscar prospects. Unless most of the reviews are downright godawful, nothing’s going to stop me from seeing the movie for myself and forming my own opinion. However, this initial response from viewers indicates a possible disappointment as far as Oscar is concerned. That is unless the mainstream critics swoop in and give it a big lift (like Basterds).

  • 18 9-03-2009 at 3:35 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Req: Who cares? Probably better. Slightly.

    And for those foaming at the mouth wanting to know Oscar prospects, I don’t know. Lead actor is still very much in the cards. Maybe cinematography. The art direction was good, but I don’t think the branch would embrace it. Nothing else, IMO. Score too small, Smit-McPhee not good enough, adaptation nothing to write home about. I thought Duvall was sensational but it’s a minuscule role.

  • 19 9-03-2009 at 3:37 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    tony: Got it. I think anyone, despite my feelings on the film, expecting a Best Picture nod is destined for disappointment, though.

    Ditto Basterds, for that matter, but no one seems to be listening on that front. I guess when the nominations come and go, that notion will finally be seen for the silliness that it is.

  • 20 9-03-2009 at 3:51 pm

    Kevin said...

    Kris, thanks for your feedback on my review. I had definitely hoped to come across as intelligent whilst in disagreement. I was about to prepare such a reponse for Inglorious Basterds today, but this film is a bit more important to me, as much as I did in fact thoroughly enjoy Basterds.

    As far as my conclusion to the review, I just noticed that over at Awards Daily, who don’t have their own review up yet, but linked to the story about the mixed reaction, the people commenting on the story seemed to be ready to give up on the film after just two or three bad reviews.

    As far as Todd McCarthy’s review goes, I find it somewhat odd considering another of their critics called the film “The Most Important Film of the Year” a month or two ago. Seems like it will be a film that will be interesting to watch the reaction to. It might suffer a similar fate to that of Revolutionary Road, a film that some call a masterpiece, but others find too bleak to really get into.

    Lastly, I can fully understand where you are coming from when you say that you felt that the story just didn’t really translate well. There is so much inner thought process and narrative prose with so little dialogue that it’s going to be a huge challenge to adapt into a visual medium that it’s bound to split people on their reactions to how well it was done. I definitely agree that some of the scenes did not really translate as well as I had hoped, but I found myself willing to forgive those scenes due to the emotional impact the film and the book had on me. I have never read a book that had so much emotional and psychological impact on me the way The Road did. Likewise, the film was deeply moving for me, though I can see where it may not be the same way for some.

    As always, I appreciate your feedback Kris, and enjoy our discussions, despite the fact that we often strongly disagree on nearly everything :) I would post my response to your Inglorious Basterds review, but it seems like the appropriate moment has passed. I am looking forward to to hearing your thoughts on other films in the festivals this fall.

  • 21 9-03-2009 at 4:00 pm

    Troy said...

    Kevin, to put it succinctly, I share your sentiment.

  • 22 9-03-2009 at 4:15 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Kevin: It was Esquire, I believe, that actually made the “most important movie of the year” comment. Variety had not reviewed the film yet, and in fact, McCarthy was in my screening in LA with the paper’s other critic, Justin Chang, so no word on the film came from Variety until today.

  • 23 9-03-2009 at 4:16 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    And by all means, whatever you have to add to the Basterds discussion, feel free. The review is waiting for your disagreement, sir!

  • 24 9-03-2009 at 4:32 pm

    Kevin said...

    Ah, thanks for the correction. I don’t know why I thought it was Variety that came out with that article. So many publications its easy to get them mixed up I guess.

    I may post my thoughts on the Basterds thread, since you encouraged it. So as to give you an idea of my thoughts on it but to keep it short and remain as on topic as possible here’s a snippet. I definitely see what you are getting in your criticism of Tarantino and self-indulgence. Personally, I think if Tarantino had stuck with Miramax rather than following the Weinstein Bros., he would have been able to accomplish a lot more. That, and his decision to leave the DGA based on an argument his buddy Rodriguez had with the DGA, always seemed like a bad choice. Without guild membership, getting a film financed is a pretty tough. Bottom line, I think his business decisions as of late have been a bit lacking in good judgment.

    As far as the film goes, I will agree that at first it felt as if there was no real depth or purpose to the story. I knew I liked the film, just wasn’t sure if I loved it yet. Upon further rumination I began to think more and more about the film and I began to love it more because I could see more depth than at first. More on that later, but most of what I felt the film was really about was something of a mix between a study on performance and a critique on the rhetorical use of calling or branding someone a Nazi/facist. But I will cover all that in the actual thread.

  • 25 9-03-2009 at 5:01 pm

    entertainmenttoday.. said...

    Kris- Will this film have mainstream appeal or be destined for Art houses only?


  • 26 9-03-2009 at 7:19 pm

    Bill M. said...

    The Road will only get mainstream appeal if it gets a Best Picture nomination.

  • 27 9-03-2009 at 7:26 pm

    Kevin said...

    I agree. It’s far to bleak and I don’t think that’s something mainstream audiences really like. Look at Revolutionary Road for an example. While I thought it was an exceptional film, albeit a little on the pretentious side (which is to be expected with Sam Mendes I think. Pretentious and Sam Mendes go hand in hand), it was far too bleak and depressing to really appeal to many people. It’s definitely not a film you want to see with your spouse, fiance’, or boyfriend/girlfriend, which already eliminates a huge number of people who downright refuse to see films by themselves.

    This year as a whole feels more like a No Country for Old Men kind of year than a Slumdog Millionaire kind of year. Hopefully that makes sense to someone other than me.

  • 28 9-03-2009 at 7:29 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    I only want to know one thing: For those that have seen “The Road,” how does Michael K. Williams (a.k.a The Thief and Omar Little from The Wire!) fair? Thanks.

  • 29 9-03-2009 at 7:54 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Does what he’s called to do, nothing much more. Solid. Exactly what was in the book.

  • 30 9-03-2009 at 10:13 pm

    Algoresnuts said...

    I thought the book was awful. And boring. I have no hope for this film. And does McCarthy know how to write? The guy doesn’t use punctuation or the correct grammar. Lazy.

  • 31 9-03-2009 at 10:47 pm

    James D. said...

    I am worried. I was genuinely looking forward to this, but with Guy and Kris, who have very different film tastes, disliking it, that does not bode well.

  • 32 9-03-2009 at 11:33 pm

    BobMcBob said...

    shame. real shame. at least the Hollywood Reporter liked it

  • 33 9-04-2009 at 10:01 am

    The Other James D. said...

    I doubt this is going to score much with Oscars, let alone with viewers. It seems like a grimmer, less compelling Children of Men.

    I also don’t think that Mortensen prediction will be successful. A Best Actor lineup without at least one first-time nominee? Sam Rockwell and/or Jeremy Renner are more likely than Viggo, I’d say (at least if Sony Pictures Classics doesn’t fuck it up), let alone Damon. (I think The Informant! looks awesome/hilarious, but I don’t see him getting farther than Globes. His supporting nom for Invictus will be a nom for both.) I’m a little disappointed for Smit-McPhee, as it’s kind of annoying how only young girls get Oscar nominations these days, but no teenage guys.

  • 34 9-04-2009 at 9:00 pm

    Alex said...

    Emanuel Levy gave it a B+. He’s right most of the time.

  • 35 9-14-2009 at 4:57 pm

    David Went to Telluride FF said...

    I saw this movie at the Telluride FF as well. It was not just bleak. It was emotionally bereft and irredeemably repetitive (“hey! See that empty, attractive, apparently lived-in house? Let’s just try one more time…)

    I happen to love SF/Fantasy books but I didn’t read “The Road.” And although I have been disappointed by most translations to the big screen of SF/Fantasy lit, there have been exceptions such as the Lord of the Rings trio. No matter what, if you’ve read the book before seeing the movie, you bring to the movie a whole set of expectations and knowledge about the story, the characters and their thoughts and your own reflections/projections. As far as this movie goes, I walked in mostly blank slate, hoping for an exciting, interesting movie with characters to feel strongly about and a powerful, affecting story.

    Even having chatted with the talented-and-handsome Viggo Mortensen as he came in to the theatre didn’t mitigate my extreme disappointment. [ sn.I haven’t seen such star-worship at Telluride since Mickey Rooney!]

    The plot itself seems simple, on the face of it. Dad and son head south after the end of the world, supposedly because they “won’t survive another winter” up north and with hopes of running into some form of beneficent community of survivors (one infers). Along the way there seem to be two main lessons to be imparted from father to son: first, trust no one and second, react swiftly and brutally to protect yourself. In between there’s a lot of silliness designed to shock (“It’s people…PEOPLE…!”)

    By the end of the movie, it seems all the lessons were for naught as the first person the boy meets on his own wins him over instantly. Mr. Disney seems to have conveniently showed up in the last few minutes to magically provide the perfect, family man (yep, complete with wife, two kids and an uneaten dog) whom the boy seems to have no problem immediately trusting—so much for the journey. Roll Credits. Given just the context of the movie, that kid better hope his adopted family happens to have a well-defended fortress, submachine guns with lots of ammo and a hidden grocery store. Oh yeah, that probably wouldn’t be consistent with the rest of the movie—maybe just having “a fire inside” will be enough to ensure that hope survives. Bah. This ending was the movie-equivalent of “and then he woke up.”

    Mortensen’s performance was convincing but wasted in this plodding mess and certainly no Oscar performance. The kid wasn’t bad—I was impressed, trivially, with the fact that he’s Australian or Kiwi—wouldn’t have been able to tell. Acting-wise, he doesn’t have a lot to work with in terms of dialog or development so it’s hard to judge him too harshly. The film ultimately feels like Franken-movie with appropriately eerie sets, a spare, dark score and some excellent lighting mixed together with unhelpful flashbacks and uneven performances. All it needs now is to find some reason an audience should sit watching for two plus hours like compelling character development and a plot. Most importantly—it has to work for people who haven’t read the book. Oops too late.

    On the other hand, the Red Riding Trilogy, a six hour treat from the BBC, was disturbing, bleak, powerful and hair-raising. But…no US superstars. Oh well.