Thursday, September 3, 2009

The word from Venice: reaction to The Road is mixed

The first day of the upcoming glorious month of film (Venice, Telluride, Toronto, Austin!) kicked off yesterday with the opening of the 66th Venice Film Festival. The adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed novel, The Road had its world premier earlier today.

Let's start with the good from Geoffrey MacNab at the Independent:

In the event, John Hillcoat has made a film of power and sensitivity that works remarkably well on the big screen. It plays like a Dystopian version of Huck Finn. "Tattered gods slouching in their rags across the waste," was how McCarthy described the father and son on their grim odyssey south across America toward the coast.

The film captures well the strange mix of heroism and seeming futility that characterises the journey. What is most impressive is the restraint the filmmakers bring to their material. The look of the film is muted and grey other than in the flashbacks to the pre-apocalyptic moments that the man (Viggo Mortensen) enjoyed with his wife (Charlize Theron) before the world ground to a halt.

Deborah Young from the Hollywood Reporter calls the film "intense":
VENICE -- In "The Road," director John Hillcoat has performed an admirable job of bringing Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the screen as an intact and haunting tale, even at the cost of sacrificing color, big scenes and standard Hollywood imagery of post-apocalyptic America.

Shot through with a bleak intensity and pessimism that offers little hope for a better tomorrow, the film is more suitable to critical appreciation than to attracting huge audiences though topliners Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron will attract initial business.

...Hillcoat and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe create a frighteningly barren world virtually devoid of color, where everything is covered with fine gray ash and even the sea has become gray. Occasional flashbacks to pre-disaster life offer momentary visual respites of color, music and warmth.

Now, on to the bad from Variety's Todd McCarthy:
This "Road" leads nowhere. If you're going to adapt a book like Cormac McCarthy's 2006 bestseller, you're pretty much obliged to make a terrific film or it's not worth doing -- first because expectations are high, and second, because the picture needs to make it worth people's while to sit through something so grim. Except for the physical aspects of this bleak odyssey by a father and son through a post-apocalyptic landscape, this long-delayed production falls dispiritingly short on every front. Showing clear signs of being test-screened and futzed with to death, the Dimension release may receive a measure of respect in some quarters but is very, very far from the film it should have been, spelling moderate to tepid B.O. prospects after big fest preems.

...But Hillcoat, who played with heavy violence in "The Proposition" and made some of it stick, shows no talent for or inclination toward setting up a scene here; any number of sequences in "The Road" could have been very suspenseful if built up properly, but Hillcoat, working from a script by Joe Penhall, just hopscotches from scene to scene in almost random fashion without any sense of pacing or dramatic modulation.

Dialogue that should have been directed with an almost Pinteresque sense of timing is delivered without meaningful shadings, principally by two actors who have no chemistry together. Unfortunately, Mortensen lacks the gravitas to carry the picture; suddenly resembling Gabby Hayes with his whiskers and wayward hair, the actor has no bottom to him, and his interactions with Smit-McPhee, whom one can believe as Theron's son but not Mortensen's, never come alive. Tellingly, both thesps are better in their individual scenes with other actors; Mortensen gets into it with Robert Duvall, who plays an old coot met along the road, while Smit-McPhee registers a degree of rapport with Guy Pearce, practically unrecognizable at first as another wanderer. Generally, the boy's readings are blandly on the nose.

Finally, the mixed reviews from In Contention starting with Kris Tapley:
There is a moment maybe three quarters into John Hillcoat’s “The Road” when it becomes clear that atmosphere may have been preferred over characterization: Viggo Mortensen’s character — known simply as “The Man” in Cormac McCarthy’s original fiction and nameless here — sits by a fire, wary of a cataracts-ridden old-timer (Robert Duvall) who couldn’t defend himself, much less harm a child.

...This should take nothing away from Viggo Mortensen’s work as an actor in the film, which is considerably moving. It isn’t his finest work yet and probably doesn’t deserve the claims of “tour de force” that are waiting to be tossed about, but it is a refined piece of acting nevertheless. However, the effect is muted by Mortensen’s co-star, Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose shrill embodiment doesn’t take on the messianic quality to which the role clearly aspires.

But ultimately, the tale itself feels doomed as a piece of cinema, forever confined to a more effective state on the page, where it knows only the limits of your imagination. Here, it is a wandering sort of entertainment that doesn’t know whether to be shocking or profound. Ultimately, it is neither, leaving merely a bleak residue of style in the shadow of potential substance.
And from Guy Lodge:
The film is by no means an embarrassment, and certainly puts the lie to the belief expressed by many that Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was “unfilmable.” John Hillcoat and his team have indeed fashioned cinema out of McCarthy’s ravished American landscape and sparse familial romance (Hillcoat and Viggo Mortensen both branded the film “a love story” in this afternoon’s press conference), and have done without making significant detours from the narrative course of the novel. (Fears provoked by the trailer that genre elements had been played up are largely unfounded.)

But where McCarthy’s prose made a virtue of its languor, snowballing urgency and desperation from its day-to-day slog, Hillcoat’s film plays weirdly disjointed and repetitive, as emotional beats (principally fear versus trust) recur without variation in nuance or context — losing the taut sense of continuity in McCarthy’s mammoth journey has been lost. Mortensen is as empathetic and physically committed to the material as you’d expect; regrettably, he lacks a sufficiently strong scene partner in young Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose subtler gestural details are too often outweighed by shrill emoting.

The Road has reportedly been added to the Telluride Film Festival, which kicks off Friday.

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