If ever a movie demanded respect for the power of silence, it should have been the screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s devastatingly magnificent Pulitzer Prize-winner The Road. And for all the things director John Hillcoat gets right, he never entirely overcomes getting that one thing so very, desperately wrong.
For the most part, screenwriter Joe Penhall sticks close to McCarthy’s minimalist story of an unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) and his unnamed son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) traveling across an American landscape devastated by an unspecified catastrophe. All non-human life is gone, forcing most survivors to scavenge for canned goods; others form bands of marauding cannibals. And through it all, the father presses on in his attempt to keep himself and his son alive in a world where just lying down and dying might seem like a reasonable choice.
McCarthy crafted a miraculous tale of irrational hope, anchored by the author’s inability to over-dramatize anything, including the end of the world. Hillcoat frames his scenes with a similarly documentary simplicity, heightening the menace when the creepy-looking antagonists show up, and focusing Mortensen’s taut performance on his character’s sheer forward momentum. Penhall’s screenplay also spends more time than McCarthy on flashbacks to the man’s life with his fatalistic wife (Charlize Theron), providing more context for what has been left behind without siphoning away the emotional power in the father-son relationship.
Indeed, it’s a solid, generally effective adaptation—except for its use of incidental music. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the score that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide; it’s simply that the added layer of cinematic artifice, cueing viewers to recognize when there’s something sad or something scary, isn’t what The Road demands. It feels like a commercially calculated capitulation—something done strictly so audiences wouldn’t find it “too depressing.” And in a film about the resilience of the human soul, that capitulation ends up being the one really depressing thing about it.
Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee Charlize Theron