John Hillcoat’s The Road finally arrives in theaters Wednesday, more than a year after its originally announced release date. Yet despite rumored cuts, tweaks, re-shoots, and an initial marketing campaign bizarrely committed to selling the apocalypse as a romance, the film is not the disaster many assumed it would be. Furthermore, rather than a bastardization of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, it’s a scrupulous adaptation, from Joe Penhall’s screenplay (A.O. Scott writes in the NY Times that, “Mr. Penhall’s script follows the novel as faithfully as a hunting dog”) to Hillcoat and company’s haunting visuals. A great feature at Wired.com juxtaposes passages from McCarthy’s book with stills from the movie, and the similarities are uncanny. In this context it’s easy to read McCarthy’s prose as gnomic stage directions. “When the bridge came in sight below them there was a tractor-trailer jackknifed sideways across it and wedged into the buckled iron railings,” he writes, and Hillcoat’s composition follows this tricky contortion to the letter.
But Hillcoat’s literal fidelity prevents the film from approximating the novel’s power. It’s a matter of proportion. Action and dialogue constitute but a fraction of what comprises McCarthy’s grim epic. Yet it seems like all of the book’s dialogue and main action has been shoehorned into the film’s svelte two hour running time. Scenes and exchanges are steadily beaded throughout, relegating McCarthy’s repetitions, silences, and blanketed dread to moments of scenic transition. Instead of quiet, anticipatory terror, the film plays as chatty, pulse-pounding thriller. Scenes that transpire over several paragraphs in the 250-page book loom larger when dramatized to five minutes out of 113. The film doesn’t belabor its flashbacks – scenes in which Charlize Theron stars as an intractably hopeless wife and mother – but these are blink-and-they’re-gone fever-dreams in the book, not moments ripe for star-powered drama.
Certain incidents in McCarthy’s book are vivid and unshakable – the fired bullet, the horrific basement discovery, the food cellar – but the film doesn’t provide enough room for these to stand out from numerous others. I want less action, less dialogue – a Terrence Malick version of “The Road” shorn to the essentials.
Hillcoat’s one stroke of genius has nothing to do with McCarthy’s book, and happens when the narrative and expectations of adaptation have ended. It’s easy to miss, but during the final credits Hillcoat slips in a soundtrack of ambient noise. You hear a sprinkler, a creaking screen door, a dog barking, children playing. Banal things that no longer exist in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic universe. Forget literal fidelity – this is the closest the film gets to McCarthy’s mournful tone. And it’s the first time a blank credit-scroll put a lump in my throat.