Sunday, 31 January 2010

the road (d john hillcoat, w joe penhall)

Mr Curry told me I had three choices. The Audiard, already seen, The Valley of Eli, which I couldn't really face, and The Road. Before I begin writing I should say that I knew I wouldn't enjoy The Road. Or rather, the odds were stacked against it. I was not a great fan of the book, and suspected that in order to make it work as a Hollywood movie, the creators would be forced to highlight the sentimentalism that exists in the book. However, Mr Curry had left we with only two choices, so The Road it was.

As he gets older, it seems to me, McCarthy becomes more Jack London than Dostoyevski. His writing is capable of an almost biblical power, something The Road seeks to make the most of, with its clockwork prose and stark apocalypism. However, an increasingly extremist view of human nature, echoed in the boy's enquiries of his father whether they are 'still the good guys', which occasionally feels almost Bush-ist, perhaps inevitably leads towards a sentimental take on this notion of 'goodness', a precious flame that must be guarded, its keepers the bearers of some kind of grail. In order to 'humanise' the bleak message of McCarthy's novel, (the civilised world will end as a result of human folly, humans will descend towards the amorality of the animal), the film, even more than the book, makes the father and son who are the subjects of the story into saintly figures, struggling manfully to retain their humanity in the face of inevitable doom.

In McCarthy's prose, this is already somewhat grating, but in a Hollywood take it becomes cringe-worthy. Penhall's script lifts the supposed 'pre-story' of the man's (let's call him Vigo) relationship with his wife and punctuates the first half of their film with their supposedly metaphysical debates about whether its right to give birth, and whether she (let's call her Charlize) has the right to commit suicide and leave her family by walking out into the void. Which she does, leaving Vigo with nothing more than some very sad flashbacks of hammocks, thighs and flowers. These scenes are purely external emotion-by-numbers, and presumably, aware that there's only so far you can squeeze an audience before you're in danger of turning them into jelly, they don't figure in the book.

Thereafter, Vigo and Son (a Danish law firm?), trudge through CGI invested sets. The camerawork is beautiful, and Hillcoat coaxes great aesthetics from apocalypse. In fact you could almost say, if it weren't for the scary cannibals, that apocalypse looks kind-of fun, like a slightly downbeat video game (Your destination is South; You must not get eaten; You must avoid strangers). The paradox conjured by using state of the art techniques (and all that that culturally and environmentally implies) to depict a time of desolation brought on by man's abuse of technology means that this film inevitably possesses a level of crassness which virtually shoots it in the foot, and this is only ramped up when we get to product placement and a muted eulogy for Coca Cola.

In a way The Road feels like a peculiarly US take on its subject. In part it harks back (cf Jack London) to the not-so-distant epoch of the frontiersman, exploring an alien environment and doing whatever he could to survive. However, it also seems to be a vision which emerges from a society which has become so unremittingly individualistic that faith in humanity has eroded beyond recognition. The Road is a logical extension of Wall Street, a dog-eat-dog society where kindness is a luxury, unless its towards your family, the only sacred cow in the States. Whilst apocalypse is unlikely to be a fairground ride in any part of the world, you'd hope that some societies might make a better fist of it than McCarthy's vision of what would happen in his homeland.

As Mr Curry said as we left the slightly sterilised world of Docklands, where they search your car on the way in, and the streets are so dead that it, the apocalypse, might have already happened, it ain't no Time of the Wolf. Talking of post-apocalyptic screenplays, did anyone spot that passing Truck?

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