Sunday, 31 January 2010


1: "the text…" 1:
According to director John Hillcoat, Cormac McCarthy felt that the voiceover in the film adaptation of his novel "The Road" was "indispensable".[1] It isn’t. It is another example of superfluous narration that gives the impression of behind-the-scenes concerns that the audience does not get the set-up without it spelt out to them. And this is a tricky set-up. The world has fallen apart, nature is crumbling, burning, dying all around and humanity has been lost. There are people, but humanity is in very, very rare supply. Into this world, a couple have a boy, a child who has not known the civilisation, wildlife and bright colours of the world that has been before. This world is full of falling trees, ash and cannibals. The woman cannot bare to live in such a world, and the man is left to spend his days desperately defending his son and preparing him for the worst. Which includes teaching the boy to shoot himself should it become necessary.

McCarthy’s novel is a true horror novel, terrifying in its depiction of a human race in its death throws of paranoia, distrust, violence, cannibalism and desperation. This then is the last brick separating a person from the inhumane: cannibalism. The "good guys" are those that don’t resort to it, but the good guys are in rags, increasingly frail and ill and dependant upon sheer luck and suspicion to get through. These too may not be enough, or ultimately right. Pretty early on, McCarthy indicates that this is a world where the worst will happen. The fragility of the boy and the fears of the man are upsetting and scary, reminding the reader of their mortality and helplessness against overwhelming threats. McCarthy does not write with the density of, say, his Border Trilogy, nor really with the stripped down efficiency of "No Country for Old Men". Rather he whittles his sentences down into prose-poem, a skeletal dance of vignettes and stark repetitions. But father and son argue, and through this we see that the boy is one of the last carriers of conscience. Conscience and kindness are the ultimate salvation McCarthy offers in a Godless, imploding, violent world.

This prose contains an illusive magic of grim poeticism and precision that does not carry over into voiceover. Hillcoat creates some stunning end-of-the-world visuals with isolated cabins, dead docks with tomblike ships, endless bleak roads and end-of-nature scenarios such as the man and boy caught in a falling forest, or the bleak litter-covered beach drained of colour. There have been so many faux-poetic and unnecessary narrations aspiring to what McCarthy achieves on page that when spoken it feels the same, and ultimately unnecessary. All the brutal beauty of the words are conveyed by the film visually, and that is as it should be.

2: "as the world eats itself…"
It probably looks just as you imaged as a reader. Ironically, in rendering beautifully stark vistas successfully, this may actually be one of the keys to Hillcoat’s adaptation’s weakness. It stands alone as a great and uniquely downbeat film to come from the Hollywood machine - typically and predictably, they seem to have had problems knowing how to market it - but somehow the grey visual splendour and the somewhat sentimental musical cues by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis compromise much of the ruthlessness of McCarthy’s original text. The majority of reviewers find the film lacking in comparison, but isn’t that usually the way, nine times out of ten, with adaptations? There is much damning with faint praise, as with Phillip Kemp:

"Still, [McCarthy’s] tone, that elusive tone, is absent. If the film misses the resonance, the sad deep anger of McCarthy’s work, it’s a creditable shot at it; but for one of the most powerful and original novels of the past decade, creditable doesn’t quite cut it." [1]

But there is so much that rings right in the film, and taken aside from its inspiration, it’s such a grand achievement in itself that it is hard to see how it might have been improved upon. It is one of the definitive post-apocalypse/post-civilisation texts ever written. Just as McCarthy deprived his modern westerns like "All the Pretty Horses" of pleasurable machismo and vengeance fantasies, and just as he stripped "No Country for Old Men" of the same plus the thrill of a showdown, in "The Road" he deprives the end of the world of the survivalist thrills and big special effects so common in, say, Hollywood disaster epics. All this is to force the action of the novels to give way to the metaphysical and the increasing interrogation of violence; of its justifications, its effects, its catharsis and randomness, to lay it naked. In "The Road", there is very little else but the fear of what people will do to one another in order to survive. And then, later, you realise that it is more about what someone will do to protect the ones they love.

It also shares much of the same feel and despair as Robert Kirkmans’ seminal zombie-survival magnum opus "The Walking Dead", possibly the most genuinely traumatic graphic novel/comic serial ever written (and illustrated by Charlie Adlard). With landmark texts such as Richard Matheson’s "I Am Legend" and Harlan Ellison’s "A Boy And His Dog", there are a lot of open horror and action motifs. But it would surely backfire for Hillcoat to have upped the horror ante - we have seen Romero’s living dead and ‘crazies’, after all - or to have spiced up the thrills with Mad Max homages. You can keep your "2012", "The Day After Tomorrow" extravaganzas. Kemp feels the unforgettable cellar of horror is bungled by Hillcoat, but again I would suggest that Hillcoat understands that McCarthy wants the horror of it, but not the Horror Genre gruesome delight of it, which would veer dangerously into neglecting the humanity of the skeletal cellar victims. It is the screams that come soon after this seen that are unforgettable. (Then again, the flare gun death is sure to burn itself into your memory).

3: "and the end of the world…"
McCarthy is barely even interested in the bigger picture; well, he is in metaphysical terms, but what remains brightest here is in reducing the struggle for humanity to what is essentially a two-man chamber piece. We don’t need to know the back story as to why everything is turning to dust. There are brief side-characters. There is a great fireside conversation between the man and Robert Duvall as Ely, an old man, but many of the encounters become distressing by succumbing to violence, distrust and humiliation. The flashbacks try to open things up a little, but they feel mostly like intrusions into the pale austerity of the rest of the film. Mostly, it is for Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-MacPhee as man and son to carry the film, and they do. Mortenson is convincingly haggard, with the trademark flare still in his eyes, and although Smit-MacPhee never looks emaciated enough, his baffled vulnerability and fledgling defiance are palpable. The rapport is convincing and if you are going with the story, your heart is sure to be broken.
Hillcoat says:

"Cormac said that it’s a book about human goodness. It’s frustrating when people label film as bleak because the bleakness is just a backdrop. Unfortunately, everyone seems to focus on the backdrop. … The gestures towards hope that the film makes, the finding of the Coke can, the frolic in the fountain are that much more special because of the tremendous obstacles that the characters are up against" [3]

Well yes; the obstacles are that very bleak backdrop which renders those moments "more special"; they do not exist without one another. It is one of the wonderful mysteries of this story that it is as cathartic and emotionally rewarding as it is, despite or/and because of the dark context. But it seems Hillcoat has surely missed the irony in choosing the finding of the Coke can as a moment of hope - really? A potential symbol of the very civilisation that potentially brought about the end of the natural world? Perhaps the definitive symbol of American capitalist branding decadence? But I am surely being facetious: Hillcoat is sure to mean that the Coke represents a world of flavour and colour that has been lost. Myself, I prefer the moment where the boy stares at the mounted head of a stag: although little is made of the moment, we can fathom for ourselves that he has never seen such a thing before and the fascination it must hold for him. No, that is not a moment of hope, but it seems to me to perfectly capture the void between the boy’s world and everything the man knows to be lost. It’s a quietly powerful and upsetting moment and is surely the film at it’s unforced best.

It may not exceed the novel, but "The Road" is an excellent rendition. An besides, it does not have to: it has to stand by itself, and it does. Once taken aside from the daunting original text [4], Hillcoat’s film will undoubtedly stand the test of time as one of the most uncompromising and humane of American films.

[1] Jonathan Romney, "The Wasteland", Sight and Sound magazine, February 10, volume 20 issue 2, pg.76
[2] Phillip Kemp, "The Road", review, Sight and Sound magazine, February 10, volume 20 issue 2, pg.76
[3] Jason Wood, "Ashes to Asphalt"; Curzon magazine, issue 18, January-February 2010; editor: Nadia Attias; AquatintBSC, pg. 31

[4] I am a McCarthy fan, and I read often how important "The Road" is, how remarkable the prose is, that it is one of the most relevant novels of the decade, etc, and very little of this would I disagree with; or at least I do not care to find much fault with it. Again: I thought it an excellent work of horror and humanity. But my friend Omar has written a hilarious and accurate parody of McCarthy’s style in "The Road", one which also reveals how its repetitions, cadence and economy are vulnerable to readings of pretension, ponderousness, and cul-de-sac progression. I don’t agree, but the satire is also sharp and amusing. I wish to share some of this here, because I dig it, with Omar's permission: full text here:

Review of Cormac McCarthy’s: The Road

On The RoadThe man picked up the little book. He read it. It was slow. Very slow. Slow as falling ashes. It didnt matter how big they made the fonts. Or how wide the margins and gutters. Or how large the spaces between the lines. It was long. Very long. And slow. Like ashes. And as he trundled his way through the little book he thought This is a piece of crap. What does trundle mean? the little book asked.
I dont know.
You dont know.
Is it a good word?
It cost a lot of money.
A long time ago.
A long time ago.
How much?
Twenty five cents.
Was that a lot?
That was a lot.
For a word.

And he trundled through the little book.
You said that word again.
I know.
Its okay.

And he kept trundling through the little book. Even turning the pages was slow. Slow as death. Slow as ashes on your face. Time was slow. It was especially slow when reading the little book. But he kept trundling through the little book because two friends recommended it the same week. Not that he thought it would ever get better after the first ten pages. He knew it wouldnt. He wasnt seeing it through for hope but curiosity. And as he trundled through the pages they seemed to turn very quickly but very slowly at the same time.
You keep saying that word.
I know.
Im scared.
Yes. I know.
Do we have to keep reading this?
Because were the good guys?
Yes. Because were the good guys.
I want to quit.
Youre scared.
Dont be scared.

And as the man trundled through the little book he realized there was something deliberate about it. It was almost like the little book was going to curl up and die every few pages. But it didnt. There was always a little miracle. The little book would suddenly stumble over a few thousand words. Perhaps hidden in a cellar. Perhaps in a kitchen. And then he would feed the little book and give it a bath. But even a little trudgerous almost titillation couldnt save it. Trundlous.
Its okay.

Deliberateness was hiding there. It was in the short sentences. In the occasional twenty five cent word. In the deliberate spelling and punctuation errors. In the obvious spelling mistakes someone missed. In the tedious repetitive sentence constructions. In the formatting. In the word count. Yes. The word count. It seemed like the little book was only trundling along to reach a word count. A promise. Maybe to an editor. Maybe a publisher. Maybe a lawyer. Or wife. Or debt collector. Or film maker. Anyway the man soon realized he couldve written this turkey himself in a weekend and he was insulted. Very insulted.
Youre exaggerating again.
Yes. I am.
You promised not to do that.
You wont do it anymore.
I wont do it anymore.
You promise.
I promise.
Whats a turkey?
Whats a turkey?
An ugly bird.
Theres never going to be anymore are there?
I hope not.
Im scared.
Dont be.

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