The Proposition

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Holiday Film Review: The Road As Incarnation

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I’m late to the reviewers party for John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and there’s a reason, which Tom Chiarella described in Esquire Magazine back in June:
There is a speed… that the actual movie… does not possess or seek to possess, an urgency that feels manufactured. The music is pulse-pounding and urgent, driven to create absurd expectations of action in a movie that quietly elicits worry about the relative friability of the invisible paths that exist between people and what they need.
Chiarella is referring here to the damn trailer, which is terrible and misleading, a Hollywood marketing mistake; presumably a split-the-difference shot (audience #1: readers of the novel, audience #2: non-readers) on the part of studio execs to fill theater seats.  So, however you feel about the existence of the movie or taking the time to see it, don’t let the trailer be a deciding factor. (I wish I’d read Chiarella’s piece sooner.)

The Road is not an action movie, either in the post-apocalyptic-thriller or zombie-genre tradition. Neither, in my opinion, is it a heart-warming holiday film about either the heroicism of fatherhood or counting your blessings (i.e. recession/depression paling in comparison to the utter desolation that is The End of Us All). It is not exactly an art film; its fidelity to the novel’s plot necessitates a just-in-the-nick-of-time and decidedly aphoristic ending, for one.  So while it might be tempting to anticipate, read, or experience the film in the above ways, all these interpretations seem to me to miss the mark.

Some years ago, when I worked in the indie film world, we had a saying that there were two kinds of “good” reviews – the kind that said Run, don’t walk, you must go see this movie and the kind that, well, didn’t.  In the end, my feeling is this: there is nothing much here for the non-reading crowd.  In other words, there are film versions of books that stand alone on their own merits, that evolve as distinct works of art, in some cases surpassing the original literary work; but this film is no Godfather.

If the novel moved you, that’s the main reason to see The Road in film version.  (If you didn’t think the novel was perfect, or if it’s not your favorite among McCarthy’s works, and yet still, you were haunted by that desolate, other-worldly, soul-stirring feeling for a long time after putting the book down, this means you, too.)  Hillcoat (The Proposition) and screenwriter Joe Penhall had the unenviable challenge of embodying with specific actors, voices and visual landscape a novel whose great accomplishment is that it infuses disembodied universalism (the nameless Man and Boy; McCarthy’s signature floating, punctuation-less dialogue; unidentified planetary catastrophe) with a miraculous depth of palpable, particularized human emotion and experience—all via (McCarthy’s unmatched) language on the page.  The result is something that perhaps wants for cinematic merit, strictly speaking — Charlize Theron’s too-frequent presence as the absent wife/mother in flashback, for instance (one of the few marked departures from the novel), seems to accomplish little other than to fill the required feminine quota — but that ultimately, for me, augmented the experience of the novel.  And The Road is a novel well worth experiencing, in my opinion, in as many ways as possible.

The “purity” of literary imagination is in some sense its ability to sidestep the clumsy business of real-life physicality. And hearing abstract, spiritually-laden phrases like “carrying the fire” and  “What if I said that he’s a god” spoken out loud by a ragged Viggo Mortensen is indeed jarring; but not in an all-bad way.  In his gestures, the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) locates said metaphorical fire in his chest, which allows us to feel it there too—a fuller, body-mind experience—in that moment, and whenever we think of it henceforth; and Robert Duvall’s revelatory performance as The Old Man burned that child-as-god scene, those words—and, ultimately, the theological inquiries of the novel—on my soul much more deeply than on first read. I was also struck by the sheer physical mashing together of these two, ravaged father and alternatingly whimpering and shell-shocked son, throughout the movie, in both love and terror (which are pretty much of a piece in this film)—something you can’t quite imagine or feel sensorily as you read the novel in its estranged, ghostly tones.

The narrative shift from literary third-person to voice-over first-person may be similarly unsettling for the devoted reader; but it does personalize The Man—collapses voice into body—which collapses us into his story in a new way.  Consider the difference:
He knew only that the child was his warrant.  He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

All I know is the child is my warrant.  And if he is not the word of God, God never spoke.
An incarnation is by definition distinct from a transcription; it is metamorphosis, not replication — fleshy and earthbound, both more and less alive than the original from which it derives. Problems of representation and debates around accuracy and truth, the relationship between the parent work and its progeny, are bound to flare up; but at the same time, the second generation always does refer back to the first, illuminating if nothing else a fruitful contrast toward fuller understanding. In this sense, for McCarthy readers whose next few weeks will center around memorializing December 25 in particular, perhaps The Road is a perfectly apt choice for a holiday movie.

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