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Once Upon a Time of the Wolf

MOVIE REVIEW
The Road (2009)

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Macall Polay/2929/Dimension Films

John Hillcoat’s book-to-film adaptation “The Road” does everything it can to repel. The cinematography — while quite remarkable — is layered in grime, depicting a landscape decimated after unexplained destruction. The very few actors seen in the film (prominently Viggo Mortensen and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) look distressed throughout, smeared in dirt and unrelenting desperation. A somber, bleak story of a father’s undying love for his son in the face of hopelessness, “The Road” even comes equipped with images of a pistol pressed against a little boy’s forehead and a father washing a man’s brains out of his son’s hair.

Through all of its darkness, though, Mr. Hillcoat’s film is strangely welcoming. Consistently impressive both technically and acting-wise, “The Road” is tough to look away from despite its ugliness. While the emotional impact doesn’t always rival the visceral quality, the film’s presentation is powerful enough to overcome such a setback.

Cormac Mccarthy’s 2006 novel — which was cosigned by Oprah Winfrey on its way to winning a Pulitzer Prize — hardly begs for a big-screen translation. The prose free-flows with to-the-last-speck-of-dirt detail, painting vivid snapshots around sparse dialogue; and the roadblocks that confront the nameless father-and-son tandem (cannibalism, theft, hunger) take the story to pitch-black territories. On paper, “The Road” comes off as perhaps too uncompromising for mainstream Hollywood’s standards, yet Mr. Hillcoat — along with screenwriter Joe Penhall — has managed to keep the book’s roughest narrative edges in tow. The film’s trailers and marketing have promised a “Mad Max”-meets-“I Am Legend” action spectacle, which “The Road” couldn’t be further from; the film is quiet, even melancholy.

The chemistry between Mr. Mortensen and young Mr. Smit-McPhee is rich, and both give the dynamic turns required for the film’s success. Without their believability, “The Road” would be an arduous task to endure. Save for one brief respite in an underground shelter overflowing with canned goods, the pair’s trek to America’s southern coast — where the impending winter won’t send them to an icy grave — is a series of nightmares. Mr. Hillcoat acts as a silent third party, holding back from too-stylish shots and angles to allow the performances and audacious scenery to command attention. He clearly appreciates the already-there power of Mr. McCarthy’s original setup.

Mr. Hillcoat, an Australia-born filmmaker on his second feature here, is an inspired choice to handle this source material. His first film, 2005’s intense western “The Proposition,” displayed Mr. Hillcoat’s ability to stage hardcore drama without crossing the line of overindulgence; you got the sense that he and David Fincher would enjoy the same Sergio Leone films. That understanding of adult, emotion-scoping nihilism serves “The Road” well. Midway in, there’s an encounter with a basement full of naked, emaciated living-dead types that a gorehound may have ratcheted up; Mr. Hillcoat, though, focuses on the protective father’s strife, and as a result Messrs. Mortensen and Smit-McPhee render the ghouls inconsequential. They’re mere set decoration for the front-and-center character drama.

The odd thing is that said character drama feels at times emotionally detached. Mr. Penhall has expanded the flashback-only presence of the man’s wife (Charlize Theron), presumably to enhance the film’s interpersonal drama, yet these scenes feel too episodic. Which also describes the film itself — before the effects can settle in, it’s on to the next scene. Mr. Hillcoat’s film curiously pumps its brakes whenever close to maximum impact.

Connecting on every other artistic front, “The Road” is in no way a letdown. The too-short section featuring a barely-recognizable Robert Duvall is most indicative to the film’s success. His face caked with mud and contact-covered eyes made vacant, the veteran actor owns the screen as a sickly, wandering elder befriended by the man and his son. A chat about humanity ensues over a campfire, and Mr. Duvall — resembling a friendlier version of the hooded specter from David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” — cuts through his character’s unattractiveness. He’s tough to look at; his earnestness, though, is much easier to embrace — just like Mr. Hillcoat’s film as a whole.

THE ROAD

Opens on Nov. 25 in the United States and on Jan. 8, 2010 in Britain.

Directed by John Hillcoat; written by Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy; director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe; edited by Jon Gregory; music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis; production designer, Chris Kennedy; produced by Nick Wechsler, Paula Mae Schwartz and Steve Schwartz; released by Dimension Films (United States) and Icon Film Distribution (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Viggo Mortensen (Man), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Boy), Robert Duvall (Old Man), Guy Pearce (Veteran), Molly Parker (Motherly Woman), Michael Kenneth Williams (Thief), Garret Dillahunt (Gang Member) and Charlize Theron (Woman).

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