Bright Lights Film Journal

Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad: John Hillcoat’s The Road

“Hillcoat and his crew have taken the book’s hints and modeled their scavenging pair on contemporary images of homeless people, who already, as Hillcoat aptly puts it, are ‘living that apocalyptic world of day-to-day survival on the streets with no money and no food.'”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the signature moment of The Road is not in the book. It’s near the beginning, as the father and son, traveling along the road, find their way blocked by a black hole where the former interstate highway enters a tunnel. The scene was filmed outside the Sideling Hill Tunnel, on a thirteen-mile stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, abandoned in 1968 when it was bypassed by a wider addition (below left). We get a teaser shot of the tunnel just after the film’s opening “before” sequence, then again as the first shot after a flashback to the mother giving birth, screaming, to the boy she is so reluctant to bring into the world. The screaming continues over an establishing shot staring into the maw of the tunnel, the full force of the pair’s dilemma facing us without a word needing to be spoken. It is a spellbinding instant of nameless fear — the darkness of the tunnel a hell worse than the one they are in. The fear is compounded by a visual association with the birth canal from which the boy has, in our minds, just emerged out of a mother whom we have seen fight expelling him into the world with every ounce of her will. It is as if we are watching what should be the miracle of birth perverted into ultimate darkness. A shot of father and son sleeping peacefully in the cab of a truck, presumably halted by the prospect of the tunnel, is rapidly broken by the rumbling sound of machinery, and pretty soon a battered truck straight out of The Road Warrior comes crawling slowly out of the tunnel, teeming with evil-looking men, replete with masks, one even sporting a Mohawk (below right). The homage is subdued enough to keep it from feeling too campy, but homage it is. John Hillcoat, director of The Road, is an Aussie, and was fully aware of the mode of apocalypse immortalized by his predecessor countryman, George Miller: “We wanted to avoid the Mad Max kind of thing that has defined the post-apocalyptic genre because it was such a landmark in that genre.”1 Indeed, this is the only moment in which the film comes close to “the Mad Max kind of thing,” and it neatly sidesteps the temptation, veering away from the tunnel and taking the father and son duo cross-country. The incident itself is in the novel, down to the masks, the diesel truck, and the Mexican stand-off that eats up one of the Man’s last two precious bullets. But there’s no birth scene and no tunnel. McCarthy strictly limited his underground spaces, apparently feeling that the blasted landscape itself was infernal enough without having to plant further darkness within it. In contrast, Hillcoat uses the sublime landscape of the tunnel, starkly buried in the wintry Pennsylvania landscape, to announce a heart of darkness beyond the ken of the father and son, and from which the movie will subsequently avert its gaze and its path.

 

As one reviewer observed, “the book’s two most ghastly images have been dispensed with.”2 A number of reviewers signaled their surprise that Hillcoat, notorious for the extremity of the violence in his previous film, The Proposition (2005), had shown such restraint in adapting a novel that never does avert its gaze. As Michael Chabon noted in his review of McCarthy’s book, “one is struck repeatedly by the way he displays the bloody-minded glee of the horror writer, the gross-out artist.”3 I don’t know if the decision was Hillcoat’s or the Weinstein brothers’ at Dimension Films, but it is a consistent mark of the film. The refusal to take us over into the abyss the way the novel does, did not, however, ruin the film for me, although it did make it a jarring experience. Hillcoat’s decision to film on location, and his brilliant choice of locations, grants the film a materiality that it sorely needs. Not only the tunnel in this scene, but the sublimely elevated concrete overpass with a jackknifed truck blocking its middle, and later shots of the same blasted interstate, beautifully realize a visual equivalent of McCarthy’s stripped-down and yet elevated prose. Hillcoat embellishes the bridge scene also, adding drama by having the Man push his wallet over and then balance his wedding ring on the edge of the guard railing. A flashback and the intrusively beautiful soundtrack music cover over the image and faint sound of the ring falling and hitting bottom that we expect and want to hear, as José Todoro put it in his Film Comment review, but, again, that’s the way the film deals with the abyss — it covers it over. Nevertheless, the music also kept me from paying too much attention to the screenplay’s importation of a ring tumbling into the fiery abyss from another Viggo Mortensen film. He does not look much like a hobbit, but it was hard to watch the pair of them trudging endlessly through desolate and hostile landscapes on a hopeless quest without being reminded of Frodo and Samwell in Mordor.

Peter Jackson effectively combined CGI and the alien landscape of New Zealand in The Lord of the Rings, and Hillcoat, who is on record as hoping that the audience will be unable even to register the CGI doctoring of Rust Belt dereliction, has followed suit. Indeed, he accurately notes that these abandoned locations make the film visually as completely American as McCarthy’s style makes the novel. Moreover, Hillcoat, his production designer, Chris Kennedy, and the rest of his crew, have taken the book’s hints and modeled their scavenging pair on contemporary images of homeless people, who already, as Hillcoat aptly puts it, are “living that apocalyptic world of day-to-day survival on the streets with no money and no food.”4 McCarthy certainly intended the shopping cart to resonate both with some distorted consumerism and with the iconography of homelessness; moreover, at one point in the novel, he refers to Man and Boy as, “plod[ding] on, thin and filthy as street addicts.”5 Margot Wilson’s costumes and the makeup department’s effects (including prosthetic bad teeth) are persuasively authentic, forging way beyond survivalist chic and into filthy rags and tatters and a truly impressive immersion in dirt and grime. Whether Hillcoat needed to take the extra step of casting African American actor Michael Williams, who played a thief on the Baltimore drug and cops series The Wire, as the hapless would-be thief who is stripped and left for dead near the end of the film, is debatable. But the visual impact of the only surviving human beings as fag-ends of late capitalism is undeniable. And Williams’ skin color adds a powerfully contemporary thrust to the dehumanizing battle over dwindling resources, even as the failure to subject Williams in his cameo to the same method acting emaciation as Mortensen and Smit-McPhee results in the strange phenomenon of a perfectly ripped body trying to persuade us it is dying of hunger. It’s a miscue for an audience trained by television images of famine in Africa to recognize the physical appearance of starvation, but it does serve to emphasize the degree to which Man and Boy have managed totally to persuade us of the reality of their plight. And the scene is powerful enough on its own that I didn’t register the incongruity until the second time I watched the film.

This same impact might possibly redeem the vehemently denied product placement for Coca Cola (Hillcoat insists that Mortensen had to beg the company in person to allow them to include a can of Coke in the movie). Granted, the gesture comes from the novel, but the visual gives it far more impact, and makes it feel far more like a commercial moment, in the movie. Moreover, the film gratuitously adds a whole slew of products into McCarthy’s brand-free description of the contents of the miraculous bunker that saves the starving protagonists midway through the book. In the book, the bunker is a stunning cornucopia of a past abundance the Father had believed lost and the Son had never believed existed. It is such an overwhelming affirmation that the Father finds that “some part of him wished they’d never found this refuge,” both because it has kept him alive and because he fears it will only whet the child’s appetite for more (163). Stocked with Vitamin Water®, Cheetos®, Jack Daniels®, and multiple products of Dole® and Del Monte® however, the bunker is hard to take ironically in the film, especially when the screenplay egregiously inserts the word Cheetos into the Boy’s prayer of thanksgiving. Still, at a stretch you could argue that these items present the only primary color besides blood in the film and that they do call our attention to the utter absence of branding elsewhere in the film. As opposed, say, to Will Smith’s shopaholic Manhattan survivalist in I Am Legend (2007), consumer culture is well and truly dead in The Road, and it would be almost refreshing if not for these glaring reminders, and the fact that father and son fall so completely for them, as if this is all they miss (okay, to be fair, they miss mom and her piano, too). But certainly it is telling that the only times we see them laugh outright are related to branded foods (the book, for example, includes several moments of sheer physical exhilaration mostly left out of the film), and it reinforces the consumerist origins of bunkers themselves during the 1950s.6 The only other instance of branding in the film is the actor couple at the end, whom we know are good guys the moment we recognize them as Guy Pearce (just as we knew old man Duvall was ok because he was old man Duvall) and Molly Parker — none of the true villains sports an established acting brand.

That product-laden bunker is the midpoint of the book and its navel point, stocked by its author with all the relaxation and comfort he has completely sucked out of the rest of the novel. Chabon notes the black humor that insinuates that the survivalist who stocked the bunker to the gills did not, of course, survive to use it. But there’s more than black humor here. The bunker was simultaneously the apogee of the consumer culture of the 1950s and its dark alter ego. In the book, McCarthy gestures in several ways at the bad conscience of the bunker. There is a striking image as the pair are emptying it of its contents and loading them into their cart, too fearful of being caught out to stay inside it any longer, when “The faintly lit hatchway lay in the dark of the yard like a grave yawning at judgment day in some old apocalyptic painting” (165). The Son’s frightened reaction to the door in the ground had already alerted us to its association with the hellish cellar that had almost killed them earlier, and the Father goes so far as to assure him that “This door looks like the other door. . . . But it’s not” (145). Hillcoat stresses the association by putting the two episodes closer together, whereas McCarthy mitigates the shock by inserting another, neutral, house in between. But, then, McCarthy’s version of the dark cellar is a short, sharp shock, a brief snapshot of “a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt” (116) before a mad dash through the woods and a long wait in the cold, dark night. Hillcoat and his scriptwriter, Joe Penhall, shorten the bunker scene and expand the cellar. McCarthy’s pile of shoes becomes a visual reference to the piled relics in Night and Fog, while the captives below are caught by the camera (and the Man’s lighter) cowering like concentration camp victims. The Man and the Boy are trapped upstairs in the house, where they have a chance to stare in horror at the evidence of slaughter while we hold our breath in suspense. Their escape is enabled by the victims themselves, who force open the trapdoor and, if the sound effects are any indication, take at least some measure of revenge on the four cannibal villains. McCarthy makes of the episode a pitch-black ethical dilemma, as the father slams the door on the pleading bodies, condemning them to torture and death, in order to save his son. Hillcoat transforms it into a brief allusion to revenge drama, as we think for a moment that the hillbilly cannibals are getting their comeuppance from the ones they have wronged. Once again, the abyss is averted. So, in the film, it feels as if the bunker is somehow a reward for inadvertently freeing the innocents and escaping the villains, whereas in the novel the bounty of the bunker is inseparable from the horror suffered by the ones excluded from it. And the twinned undergrounds, the only ones in the book, emphasize the interdependence of the actions.

Instead of the novel’s bunker, the film’s structural weight falls on Charlize Theron, who plays the greatly expanded role of Woman, who by the time the film (and book) start has long since killed herself out of clear-headed despair. Hillcoat films the earliest memories of the young couple in the faded colors of old Kodachrome snapshots of family scenes from the late fifties, making a visual link with the world of the bunker. It’s chronologically impossible — those images would belong to the parents of this couple, not to them — but it’s thematically powerful. At the same time, it also sentimentalizes and personalizes the starker message of McCarthy, which tells us that for all the fleeting and haunting images of the Man’s infrequent dreams of the past, what endures from it is not the ones he loved, or even their sullied memories, but Coca Cola and all the other consumer goods lovingly preserved in the bunker. By structuring his film around the character of the wife — the film opens on the couple in bed on the night of whatever original event caused this disaster — Hillcoat again lessens the impact of the novel and looks away from the abyss. By never specifying the cause, and barely alluding to the more eventful period of the apocalypse — the early years before most of the people had died — McCarthy had honed in on something more essential, more hopeless, and ultimately more redemptive, whereas the film never quite earns its own redemption.

For example, the film collapses the book’s long episode by the sea into a single scene of arrival, salvaging, theft and recovery, and the father’s death. McCarthy is fascinated by the simple drive of survival, the day-to-day activity of scavenging and bricolage. The Man belongs, as Chabon astutely observes, in the capable tradition of Jack London’s heroes: “The father’s inherent resourcefulness . . . his handiness with tools and guns, his foresight and punctilio, his resolve — you can only call it pluck.” McCarthy lovingly details the care with which the father repairs the shopping cart, whittles down fake bullets, or stoically sutures his own wounded leg. We know in the book that the hunter who appears at the end to help the bereft boy is a good guy the moment the narrator tells us that the shotgun shells “were handloaded and the ends sealed with candlewax” (303). In the film, we know he’s the good guy when we finally recognize Guy Pearce beneath all the costume and makeup. It’s a poor tradeoff, if an inevitable one, and it’s the same tradeoff that requires the bleached visuals of The Lord of the Rings and 300 to capture the essence of “apocalypse,” and that requires CGI to make us believe the earthquake or make the pounding surf of the sea that much higher and more awesome. You could argue that it’s the same paradox Chabon finds in the novel, that “to annihilate the world in prose one must simultaneously write it into being,” that in order to annihilate the world in motion pictures one must simultaneously film it into being, and that filming of necessity must involve CGI. And it works early on, as in the extraordinary image of a vast murky lake filled with endless criss-crossing lines of dead, fallen trees. But when we notice it and it wasn’t necessary, it breaks the spell, and it reminds us of all the other films we have seen that we had hoped this one wasn’t quite so much like. Just compare the many scenes of roads endlessly distressed by CGI with the devastating shot late in the film of what we know is a real, deserted road. The trademark flatness of animated pseudo-reality works marvels in films aspiring for the stylized look of the comic. But when they aspire for the transcendence of the Apocalypse, they need all the shading they can get.

A number of reviewers compared The Road to zombie movies, usually disparagingly, as in a “zombie movie with pretensions” or a “glorified zombie movie.” It’s an accurate comparison, although for me it has more to do with Chabon’s recognition of the book’s roots in the stark violence of Grand Guignol horror than in a cheap genre shot at a would-be art movie. Zombie movies are the starkest and bleakest of horror, and films such as Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead or Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers are as unremittingly negative as commercial filmmaking has ever come. In this, they do resemble the ’70s apocalyptic science fiction to which The Road superficially belongs, but, like The Road, they are far more despairing and far more existential than films such as Soylent Green, Beyond the Planet of the Apes, or The Omega Man. What The Road especially shares with the old-school zombie films is its focus on the space of the house as simultaneously a space of shelter and domesticity and the source of the greatest terror and evil. When the victims in the cellar turn on Man and Boy and pursue them up the cellar stairs, Hillcoat shoots them in rapid horror-film bursts; then we glimpse through the window the four captors striding menacingly through the fields toward the house in a visual echo of Night of the Living Dead and countless other rural zombie films. Hillcoat has recourse to a similar shot in the final horror set-piece, where father and son’s discovery of a killing field outside a country shack cuts to a wide shot of a whole line of cannibal hunters slowly and silently closing in on a distressingly “normal” (read: running and screaming) young mother and child. Famously, Romero’s series of films became more and more explicitly a commentary on the alienation of contemporary consumer culture, just as Siegel’s film had pointedly taken on the red-baiting witch-hunting of the ’50s. Like The Road, these films also had serious subtexts at work.

Both book and film raise the question of the loss of values in the contemporary world. The film is especially good at showing the degree to which the father’s single-minded protection of his son clouds his ethical judgment. And the film uses intimate domestic spaces to emphasize the centrality of the family unit in both the psychosis of the future and its possible redemption even more than the book does. With the exception of the Mad Max gang at the beginning, every other scene of horror is set within or around a house. Hillcoat eschews McCarthy’s most gruesome image — a baby roasted on a spit, apparently with the consent of its mother — but he consistently frames his characters within household settings and his central pair within a series of confined spaces — in a cave (our first glimpse of them in the present), under bridges, in a drainage pipe, in the cabs of trucks, and, of course, in the bunker. Nevertheless, it is significant that the key encounters in the second half of the film — with the old man, with the black thief, and with the “good” family at the end — all take place out in the open. In McCarthy’s book, father and son leave the sea before he dies, and the Boy encounters his new family (more plausibly) under the cover of the woods where, presumably, they live out of sight and mind of the road. In the film, however, everything happens on the beach. Well, that’s where The Lord of the Rings ends, too. Maybe the Aussies and the Kiwis (not to mention the Brit Tolkien) just can’t keep their imaginations off the sublime coast, while McCarthy’s vision refuses to sever the redemptive from the dark pit.

  1. John Hillcoat quoted in “Creating the Look of The Road,” The Road Official Website, 29 Dec. 2009. []
  2. Todd McCarthy, “The Road,” Variety 3 Sept. 2009: Web; accessed 29 Dec. 2009. []
  3. Michael Chabon, “After the Apocalypse,” New York Review of Books 54.2 (15 Feb. 2007): Web, 29 Dec. 2009. []
  4. “Creating the Look of the Road,” Website. []
  5. Cormac McCarthy, The Road (London: Picador, 2006), 188. []
  6. See, for example, Philip K. Dick’s prescient short story, “Foster, You’re Dead” (1955). []