USA 2009 – Certificate 15.
Screen adaptation by Joe Penhall: direction by John Hillcoat.
This film is clearly a ‘message movie’. But, for me, the most stimulating moment in the screening was among the preceding adverts. The first was by Act on CO2. It presented a father reading an illustrated moral fable to his young, blonde-haired daughter at bedtime. We saw the animals and natural settings that succumbed to the man-made toxic pestilence. At the end the young girl asked her father, ‘Is there a happy ending?’ It struck me that if she was a few years older she could see the film that I was about to watch. In this post-apocalyptic tale the opening shows a world where there is clearly not a happy ending for the animal kingdom, for nature and for human society.
The following contains some plot information: however, I think the plot’s trajectory is fairly obvious from the opening moments.
The film is an adaptation of a highly praised novel by Cormac McCarthy. I found the book an absorbing and powerful fable, but (like No Country for Old Men) that its minimalist style has definite limitations. The minimalism is drastically reduced in the film medium. We are immediately shown facial expressions and character movement: the actual detail of the devastation: and intriguing detail in the background: all amplify the bare bones of the novel. The filmmakers accentuate this tendency partly through cinematic style, for example the use of the overhead, dramatic wide shots: but mostly by the often obtrusive accompanying music. I cannot remember many musical riffs in my imagination when I read the novel.
The filmic approach also gives added emphasis to other aspects that are found in the novel. This applies especially to the roles of female characters. In The Road Charlize Theron (woman) plays the lead female. The fact that she is a star just makes it more obvious that her character is subordinate and marginal to the men: and she also has a negative function in the narrative. In fact, in both the book and the film, men trudge off into the wilderness (here father and son played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee), with the women frequently left behind in the world of domesticity. In this case, though, the domestic world has collapsed. Man and the wilderness is a common motif in popular films: the Hollywood Western is mainly constructed round this situation. McCarthy’s books tend to be westerns as well. But equally in the broader US culture the situation has almost mythic status. (Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel offers an excellent analysis of this tendency).
A more problematic treatment, not in the book, concerns African-Americans. I think there are one or more among the extras, including in a gang involved in cannibalism. However, the one black character (Michael Kenneth Williams) presented centrally in a sequence is the thief. In the book McCarthy describes this character thus, “Scrawny, sullen, bearded, filthy. His old plastic coat held together with tape.” Making him a black character might seem neutral casting, but that is not the case in the sort of capitalist society where racist stereotypes are still powerfully present.
Critics have commented on how the film softens or downplays aspects of the novel – the treatment of cannibalism is a good example. Joe Penhall was asked about changing the written story for the film and suggested that movies were ‘subject to immutable laws’, [Interview on Night Waves, Radio 3, January 7th 2010]. This is over-emphatic, though mainstream films are subject to powerful conventions. These are apparent at the film’s ending. On the seashore setting there is one extra character (uncredited) as loaded in connotations as the wilderness itself. I think you will recognise him/her as soon as you watch the final scene.