Friday, November 27, 2009
Dir. John Hillcoat
The Road was one of the most powerful novels I've experienced, a sparse and specific tale of a father and son making a trek to the sea as the earth is dying. Since picking it up several years ago, I saw both a promise and a trap in terms of a film version. The book employs a style reminiscent of a Robert Bresson film, where mundane acts in the shadow of larger forces at some point of existential pressure lead to a transcendence, where the most boring acts are as suspenseful as something from Hitchcock. Similar to Camus' The Plague, the novel was an existential tour-de-force set around a natural phenomena of death and dying. Both works can simultaneously be as depressing and inspirational as anything (though The Road probably has a claim to being the darker of the two).
When I read that Hillcoat was slated to direct I was excited. Of all the directors working today, he was probably the best choice. More than a feeling of relief at not getting someone like Spielberg (who would have done an able but more mainstream approach), I had already thought that Hillcoat was one of the most promising directors working. His previous work, the brutal Australian western The Proposition was a tremendous display of his talent, though it wasn't consistently great film. In a play of irony, this film does the exact opposite. There's really nothing immediately special on display; yet its a consistently great film.
This is about the most faithful adaptation of the novel that could have been made. I would have loved to have seen more of the monotony, the cold, the walking, but here's the thing: for those familiar with the book at 2 hours the film is too short. For those who aren't familiar with the book it will feel too long. For those who bought into the ad campaign that was so misleading I'm waiting for legal action, where the film was presented as Mad Max 4, it will be the longest 2 hours of their life. Similarly, I was a bit surprised to hear so much talking, since the book has such little dialogue. Yet, I'm sure others were frustrated by how quiet the film was. What is certain is that this is as faithful an adaption than Hollywood could give us. Then again, the guy behind me exiting the theater said to his girlfriend "that wasn't at all what I expected, but wow, that was really...emotional." Hopefully that scene repeats itself.
The director's cut will likely be an even greater film; Hillcoat gave into a voice-over, a decision reminiscent of Ridley Scott and Blade Runner, but he seems to have negotiated a properly ambiguous film that leaves the ending unchanged, and while the voice over doesn't help, changing the ending would have been disastrous, and no doubt the studio would have liked things to have gone different. But unlike those famous films that gained new life indirector's cuts (Brazil, Blade Runner) this film really doesn't revolutionize anything, except that Hillcoat essentially made an art-film out of a big-budget Hollywood film.
The film makes an economical choice, jumping in about a third of a way into the novel. Just like the novel, Viggo Mortenson (who once again demonstrates his uncanny ability to do accents and should be the front-runner for an Oscar for this)plays a nameless father protecting his son from the elements and evil doers in a post-apocalyptic landscape caused by some unknown disaster. Unlike the novel, a great deal of time, proportional to linear time, is spent on flashbacks. I felt that the flashbacks played too much a role, breaking up the atmosphere just as it was getting established in the linear action, but I think they actually work for the most part. The score by Nick Cave wasn't as dissonant as I'd expected; it's basically an adaptation of Part's Speigel im Speigel, which suggests something I'll get to shortly, but like nearly every element of this film, from major actors in the few bit parts of the film, to the special fx it seems that just as an element is about to come out and overwhelm the rest of the film, it restrains itself. In the book, things felt urgent, and realizations came rather immediately through that dire feeling. The film, on other hand, takes the approach of immersing you into a way of life, a world, philosophical questions, and then letting things unfold for and haunt you long after you've left the theater. Not that the book didn't stay with you, its that the film just seems like a faithful adaptation until it resonates to something greater.
Hillcoat's previous work had strong Christian imagery and allusions. Like Cave's music it marries the spiritual ideal directly with the profane and visceral real. Hillcoat's The Road is actually a religious film, not really like Bresson's films, and even in ways that at times may feel explicit for what those who read the novel may be prepared for, but in its own understated and brutal manner. The novel's devastating power was in its denial of yet affirmation of the things that may be called spiritual or religious, the film differs in that it isn't explicitly resisting the religious; Hillcoat trusts (correctly) that the dark imagery will do that on its own. When Robert Duvall (The Apostle, Tender Mercies), in some clever inter-textual casting shows up as an aged traveler, his performance is staggering in itself, but the lines he delivers straight from the novel take on a profound and new found power within this different emphasis, as do some of the last lines of dialogue.