Apocalypse Now: Give the Film Version of The Road a Chance

Sara Vilkomerson | August 6, 2010

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in "The Road"

Hey, have you read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?

There was a while there when that seemed to be the only question asked at various dinner and cocktail parties around town. The 2006 Pulizer Prize winning novel was kind of like the Harry Potter/Twilight of the intellectual world — cool kids had it in their back pockets, you could use both hands to count how many people you saw reading it on the subway daily, and Oprah did it as a book club pick. And it was all for good reason — McCarthy’s sparse and unflinching tale of a father and son traveling through a post-apocalyptic world after some unnamed disaster manage to hit just the right tender nerve (particularly among PTSD’d New Yorkers). The book itself, at just 256 pages, was gripping enough that you could read in a single weekend — maybe only to find yourself blinking late into the night, wondering how you might best pack up a shopping cart or how hungry you’d have to be in order to eat another human being (or was that was just us?).

The Hollywood adaptation seemed inevitable, even though it seemed near impossible to make this particular movie, from source material so bleak, and with so little dialogue. And then the movie came out and guess what? No one went to go see it! The film grossed just over 8 million dollars (production budget was reportedly $25 million), and while some critics raved (The New York Observer’s Rex Reed said, “It is sad, bleak and unbearably depressing. It is also gripping, shattering and brilliant.”) others, well, not so much (“The Road possesses undeniable sweep and a grim kind of grandeur, but it ultimately plays like a zombie movie with literary pretensions,” sniffed The Washington Post).

But we would like to now go on record as being decidedly pro The Road. And now that the film is available on pay-per-view, here is why you should crank up the AC, turn off the lights and give it a chance. For starters, fans of the book should take heart: this is about as faithful an adaptation as you can hope for. It stays true to the essence of McCarthy’s novel and eliminated only one of the very terrible things that happen in the book (we won’t ruin the surprise). In fact, if possible the movie made one particularly scary scene even more terrifying in the movie version. And then there’s the great Viggo Mortensen. It just doesn’t matter what this guy does, he’s always great. (Always: Remember when he was a basically just a mute Amish farmer in Witness? He brought a lot to the role!). In The Road he is spectacular. Even if you aren’t a fan of anything else — the stunning art direction, the (perhaps questionable) Nick Cave soundtrack — see this movie to see one of the best actors working today turn in what is arguably one of his finest performances. Charlize Theron takes what is the wispiest of characters in the novel, and fleshes her role into something fascinating. And, not for nothing, young Kodi Smit-McPhee is not annoying in what could have been a disastrous role for a child actor. (This is all to say nothing of the excellent small turns turned in by Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, and Garrett Dillahunt.) So it’s not the same experience as reading the novel. Of course it isn’t! But enjoy it for what it is, an excellent and underappreciated film with remarkable performances.

PS! We are delighted by the news that Viggo Mortensen has not been scared off of movies with “Road” in the title or daunting literary adaptations: he’s signed on to play Old Bull Lee in the adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.