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Apocalypse Now: The Road (film)

New to theaters this winter is The Road, directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition) and adapted to the screen by Joe Penhall from the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. The 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was considered by many to be un-filmable due to its spare prose, bleak post-apocalyptic setting, and sporadic bouts of shocking violence. The story concerns an un-named man and young boy who travel across a catastrophe-scarred US landscape (Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Louisiana) where ash stains everything, their goal being to get to the sea. The novel’s triumph is its revision or deconstruction of the frontier narrative (in which a protagonist moves across the land with the goal of getting to the sea or more specifically, to the Californian gold coast), showing in its denouement how suspicious or cruel such goals can be and how in a post-apocalyptic world, there is no place to go. The novel is often aptly described as bleak and tragic, fitting adjectives as it is at moments humanely difficult to read due to a tone close to nihilism.

The film retains the bleak tone of the novel while magnifying the miniscule moments of sentimentalism, and not to the best effect. The Man (played by The Lord of the Rings’ Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) go through the same paces of the book but lack the drive and desperation which made the novel so compelling. As a film, the work lacks almost any sort of tension and the flashbacks to life before the un-specified apocalypse (showcasing excellent scenes with Charlize Theron) do little to propel the narrative forward. Sentimentalism of the worst kind mars what could have been a compelling film adaptation. As a theme, moving forward is one of the main themes of the film and book but where the book is nearly a masterstroke of subtlety, the film’s choices are too obvious. The film isn’t helped along it its journey to the sea by the lack of chemistry between the two leads. The film’s saving grace note (aside from its beautiful cinematography by Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe) is a small appearance almost near the end of the film by Robert Duvall (Apocalypse Now, Tender Mercies) who plays an almost blind man who talks with The Man about the existence of God and possible meaning of life (this segment was, incidentally, one of the longest passages of external dialog in the novel). As a whole, by the moment the audience gets to the sea its lost sight of its reason for even taking the journey.

As a part of the post-apocalyptic cinematic genre, the film is most forgettable. Many other directors have charted this territory with more provocation and intelligence before (see George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead/Day of the Dead, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, the teleplay by Mick Jackson Threads, or even the Japanese animated series by Ryousuke Takahashi Blue Gender) and while the film can call itself a tasteful adaptation, it can not call itself more than diversionary; readers of the novel may be curious but the rest may shrug its shoulders and walk away. Released in theaters November 25, 2009.