The Road: Urgent, terrible beauty

More filming the unfilmable. That is, unfilmable and unsellable if audiences depend on lazy and quick judgements. Cormac McCarthy’s novels are hot film property just now after the Oscar success of No Country For Old Men. In case you didn’t know, McCarthy is one of America’s greatest novelists. His territory is that of struggle against nameless and seemingly over-bearing suffering. The lazy and quick assessment of his work is that is bleak and depressing. Certainly it has that appearance, and his prose itself encourages such a view.  Such an assessment is though, shallow. There’s always hope and the possibility of resistance – McCarthy always seems to be saying that there’s a point to resisting evil even if evil’s victory seems inevitable. In fact it’s a thousand little victories that may lead up to one bigger one. Love, goodness, honesty – these are things worth living and dying for. That’s actually a profoundly hopeful message, and one that’s often either ignored or misunderstood as cheap by those who would prefer a more ‘honest’ total bleakness (quite what point there is in such people as the latter in engaging with any art of any sort is a philosophical contradiction they overlook).

All of that of course makes convincing people to come and see a film in which the world is ending and there’s no getting out of it, no last-minute rescue, a difficult one to make. Also difficult to deal with is the expectations of all those who fall in love with the stark and terrible beauty of McCarthy’s prose. While it should be true that we view adaptations of books not as versions of the printed word but independent interpretations of a text that is ‘out there’ and not confined to the printed page (as, in fact, McCarthy himself does), book-lovers rarely do. We often get hung up on incidentals, forgetting that it is impossible to be truly faithful to a 300 page book, let alone one as short as Where The Wild Things Are. If you miss that with The Road, then you miss a great deal. I loved the book, and the film works well. It’s not a genuinely great film in the same way that the book is a genuinely great book, but then that was always going to be unlikely. Where, though, the book has the   printed word, the film has beautifully shot empty devastation as well as a haunting and entirely appropriate score from Nick Cave (who else?).

What it also has, which is essential, is an utterly convincing, touching and beautiful relationship between the central and nameless father and son who are walking down the road of the title in the hope of reaching the coast, where food, community and life may be. Viggo Mortensen is, of course, perfect for this role; the son – who has come out of nowhere – is utterly astonishing in a part that calls more out of him than is strictly reasonable in terms of what he sees and experiences. His is a journey into the very worst sort of adulthood, and the very best sort of love that causes tears to well and a song of hope to form on the lips of all those with eyes to see and ears to truly hear.

I guess all the problems this film faces can be summed up in one word which so often disappoints optimism and scuppers hope: expectations. It’s no-one’s fault – it’s just that the book is truly extraordinary; in its genre it is free of cliché, and achieves a depth and poignancy that little else even comes close to. Even since its publication in 2006 it has left such legacy that it is impossible to live up to. Such is the committment to the material and humility of director John Hillcoat and team that they seem willing to live with the disappointment thy will inevitably seed for many who have either read the book or heard talk of its power. They shouldn’t have to live with that, though. Cormac McCarthy has been quoted as saying the film is unlike anything he has ever seen – he was so moved by it he was silent for 20 minutes after. Like the author, we should lay aside prejudice, easy judgement and preconceptions and see this for what it truly is: brilliant, beautiful, real, urgent and hopeful. It’s a story of its time and for its time that has become even more prophetically important since the book’s publication. All who are concerned about the present and the future morally, spiritually, politically and environmentally should both see and read this.

It is important. It is real. It is now in way that doesn’t bow to fashion and mode in the wrong sense. Engage, before it’s too late.

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