THE INUITS may not actually have 100 words for snow, but Cormac McCarthy knows at least 500 for gloom. McCarthy's 2006 Pulitzer-winning, Oprah-approved, post-apocalyptic saga The Road might not be his finest work—in my mind, that honor still goes to the astoundingly baroque Blood Meridian—but it's almost certainly his most focused, with virtually every sentence conveying some new detail of utter desolation, all rendered great and terrible by the author's neo-biblical prose. (Phrases like, "He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark... while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings" may confound linguistically, but taken on an emotional, cumulative level, it's just, like, whoa.) After reading it, everything seems strange for a while, like watching the world through a depressive's View-Master.
Arriving after delays and rumors of recuts, the long-awaited cinematic version comes off as a non-starter; an honorable, respectful, well-acted adaptation that feels curiously inert. All the beats are there—with the exception of a few of the most notoriously grisly bits—but the chaos seems a little too orderly.
Director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) retains McCarthy's somber melding of Mad Max, Dawn of the Dead, and the Lone Wolf and Cub series, with unnamed Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trudging through the remains of America toward the ocean while avoiding roving packs of cannibals. (Seen only in flashback, the Woman gets a little bit more to do in the movie than in the book, possibly because she's played by Charlize Theron.)
On a performance level, Hillcoat's film succeeds, with the genuine chemistry between the two leads bolstered by brief but strong appearances from Guy Pearce, The Wire's Michael K. Williams, and an agreeably hambone Robert Duvall. (Special credit goes, as it often does these days, to Garret Dillahunt, who creates an indelible boogeyman in maybe a minute of screentime.) Where The Road stumbles, unfortunately—and perhaps inevitably—is in its attempts to adequately reproduce the book's thunderously grim, somehow cleansing vision. McCarthy's basic theme of the grinding inevitable broken up only by brief moments of happiness (including the best cameo by a Coke machine since Dr. Strangelove) remains, but Hillcoat's noble effort ultimately falls under the category of things much better imagined than seen. Instead of The End of All That Is, this is, well, just a movie.