Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Road

(John Hillcoat, US, 2009)

An interesting film to talk about, but a trial to watch. From a purely technical standpoint, there's a lot to admire, provided you can survive the brutally depressing mood that it evokes. The performances, set design, and editing are all top-notch; in fact, only the music fails to satisfy - it verges on maudlin, abetting the fugue of despair that pummels your feelings into submission. I can't heap enough praise on the mighty Viggo, whose performance is deserving of the term heroic. Part of that sense of heroism, however, comes from an impression of his having struggled for so empty an endeavor. The problem isn't that it's a poorly-made film, or one made with anything but good intentions, care, and sincerity. Indeed, it's almost shockingly sincere, and that's part of the problem.

Can we talk about the notion of a novel being unfilmmable? I'm reminded of a line from the film Jurassic Park (based on a book that practically screamed to be adapted to the screen) in which Jeff Goldblum's character chides the genetic scientists for being "so concerned over whether or not they could that they forgot to think about whether or not they should." I think that the same injunction ought to apply to adaptations of certain novels, and it's one that Hillcoat should have thought more about before they made this film. Of course, in this day and age, there is no greater prize for a literary work than being made into a movie, so it's unlikely that people will start being more circumspect any time soon.

But the question remains - why? It's not to say that subject matter as solemn and terrible as the The Road's off-limits to cinema, but here the steady progression of harrowing situations feels unduly oppressive. It's not all horror, of course, and the film handles the moments of hope carefully, without spilling into sentimentality. All the same, the glimpses of redemption don't do much to leaven the gloom, with the possible exception of the ending - but really, by the end we're so emotionally downtrodden, we'll leap at anything suggesting survival. But is just surviving enough? Is it worth it if no hope exists? Such questions, raised so explicitly and starkly, aren't adequately worked through.

This is sort of the idea behind my earlier comment regarding Viggo having struggled heroically towards dubious ends. The movie is a powerful, overwhelming experience, but it doesn't feel like a great film - it feels like walking through a third-world slum, full of beggars and whores and suffering at a pitch that you really can't adequately imagine. It's not cathartic, it's just awful, and you find yourself feeling spent and mournful rather than fulfilled. While watching the Road, I couldn't help but think that minus the apocalyptic catastrophe, such horrors exist right now. From vicious rape and murder to the unthinkable suffering of starvation, to the quotidian desperation of the homeless - it's all here in this pre-apocalyptic world, just outside the comfort and the joy and the mild inconveniences of the few and very fortunate.

Maybe that should speak in favor of The Road as real art - it did made me feel, and it made me think. Maybe my stance toward the whole film-representation of terrible things is reactionary and unnecessary. But I can't avoid thinking that the unrelenting despair of the film, in all of its perfectly crafted realism, constitutes a kind of transgression against the suffering that is real - a bad-faith manipulation of our capacity to feel pity and sorrow. Can a film this bleak and uncompromising have a greater utility than its ability to make us grateful for running water and electricity? Something so visceral, immediate, so commanding of our instinct to fear violence and privation, doesn't have the detachment* that allows us to adequately respond to these questions - and that's where the Road finally fails.

*A detachment, I should note, that is built-in to the experience of reading a novel, which does not have cinema's fixed dimension of time. Again, this isn't to say that the subject matter itself is too much of anything - too terrible, or despair-inducing - to be given a treatment in cinema. Just that such a treatment has to be very carefully modulated. It has to give the audience a fair shake; some amount of imaginative space to move in, so to speak. Paradoxically, the excellent craft of the movie version of The Road is actually to its detriment. It's a law of diminishing returns kind of thing - the more convincing you make this particular fictional world, the less you give to the audience to do on their own, in terms of feeling as well as thinking.

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