The Road (Hillcoat, 2009)

Viggo Mortensen in The Road

Damn it, I feel like a traitor to my vocation.

As a professional literature teacher, I always feel guilty about not getting behind the Cormac McCarthy bandwagon. Surely anything that promotes reading of a more literate kind, that gets people to take serious literature seriously, ought to be championed, embraced…revered.

Perhaps it’s that last descriptor that gets me. McCarthy’s lyrical prose and archetypal, mythopoeic settings, tend to create the sort of bold novels for which readers either fall hard or not at all. Me? I always feel like the real subject of every McCarthy novel is what a great writer he is, and even though I’ll freely admit he’s got the chops to back up all the claims of his admirers, there is an overly labored, exacting quality to the late 20th century style that I find more artificial than profound. To be fair, this is something I also feel when I read Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, Tobias Wolff and just about anyone associated with the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop not named Flannery O’Connor. In other works, I hope I can distinguish between not liking the dominant style of the day and not recognizing the talents of those who utilize it.

There is an air of painful self-awareness that hovers over and throughout a McCarthy novel. He has a tendency to describe the commonplace with mythic and poetic language, infusing it with the sort of fuzzy significance that is sort of breathtaking if you allow yourself to be carried along by the form and don’t think too hard about the idea. The first coin-flipping scene in No Country for Old Men was the consummate example in that novel, and when I read the Coke can discovery scene in The Road I just knew it was going to play prominently in the film’s trailer. Conversely, he will be blunt and sparse when talking about the most complex thoughts or actions of his characters. You’ll get three pages on how good a can of peaches tastes and then two sentences about something like, “He was going to die. He thought about that.”

Here’s the thing, though. While Joel and Ethan Coen have spent a career mining the nether regions between cynical self-parody and spiritual epiphany and are thus perfectly suited to adapt a McCarthy work without getting carried away, John Hillcoat tends towards the lyrical himself (see The Proposition) and thus depends too much on the emotion inherent in the premise to concentrate it through a narrative that might make the universal themes concrete.

I’m convinced that Hillcoat has a great film in him, but I’m equally convinced that it takes a particular temperament to successfully adapt a high profile literary work. A fearful literalism is the kiss of death, but many of the great adaptations–The Silence of the Lambs, High Fidelity, To Kill a Mockingbird, In Cold Blood–are justly remembered for nailing the book rather than projecting an auteur’s vision of it. It is not merely that these literary sources are often filled with great dialogue–and let’s be honest, dialogue, for all of McCarthy’s gargantuan talent, is not his strongest gift–but also that their directors are able to find the through story that allow the great scenes to propel the whole work higher rather than simply acting as set piece showpieces.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere some problems in the adaptation, so I won’t repeat them here. Upon reflection, my initial impressions about McCarthy’s en medias res technique in comparison to the film’s insistence on revealing too much too soon is one that has stayed with me. So, too, my puzzlement at the absence of the final coda from the novel, though I’m painfully conscious of the fact that there is no answer to the question, “Who would deliver it?”

The absence of the coda, along with the extreme paring down of McCarthy’s prose, ensures this is a film ultimately about plot, and the plot is the least interesting thing about the story.

Small note. I’ve seen a few responses to the film that take aim at Mortensen’s performance.  Technically, I thought he was fine. My problem with him in this role is that Mortensen’s persona is so strongly associated with inner strength and resources that it is somewhat hard to believe the father’s desperation. He just plays strong better than weak, so his scenes, for example, with Charlize Theron, his abandonment of an underground pantry, or his decision to strip and abandon the man who steals from them are easy to misinterpret since we have a hard time believing that a Mortensen character can be in full-fledged panic mode.

Having spent all this space knocking the film and the book, I imagine its probably too late to say it really wasn’t a poor film. I think it might have done better as a summer release than a fall prestige film, but we will see. As an nostalgia aid–which is what many adaptions are these days–used to remind oneself of previous pleasures (in reading the book) rather than providing new ones, it works fine. It remains to see whether that will be enough.

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