In Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel "The Road," no word is repeated so often and with such steady emphasis as "ash."
The stuff is everywhere. It clogs the air, blocking the sun. It blankets the ground. It infiltrates the lungs of the protagonist we know only as The Man, who is shepherding his young son (The Boy) across a doomed landscape where most of the earth's few survivors are marauding cannibals.
But in director John Hillcoat's adaptation of McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, there's not even a cigarette's worth. Soot-deficiency is a forgivable offense, but Hillcoat's "The Road" is missing other things, too.
Though the film mostly strives to stay close to the book, it fails to translate its essence and somehow feels more dreary than it should — which is saying something for a story about the apocalypse.
Despite its end-of-the-world setting, McCarthy's book is, at heart, a father-son parable. The cause of the world's destruction is intentionally vague — we are told that it comes with "a shear of light and a series of low concussions." Their survival, moving with obsessive carefulness southward on a road, is a journey with Biblical undertones.
The Man (Viggo Mortensen) is best viewed as a weary but strong Hemingway-esque hero. His wife (Charlize Theron) turned to suicide — "We're the walking dead in a horror films," she says in the book — a backstory we get in flashbacks. While the man, too, has a tenuous grasp of hope, he's resolute in clawing for survival.
But in the film, our dominant impression is of his morbidity. In the early scenes, his gun (with two bullets remaining) looms large. Several times he instructs his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) on how he must kill himself should the "bad men" get him.
Better would have been to focus intently on the constant, simple tension of their survival — surveying the path ahead, gathering drips and drops of gas, making it through the night. Later, the Man instructs the Boy: "Remember how we did things" — but we never rightly see that, ourselves.
This would have provided rhythm to the film, which pulses in the book. Instead, Hillcoat seems to be searching uncertainly for the scene-to-scene drama of the pair's (admittedly aimless) wandering. He's pushed dramatic scenes closer together, giving the film an episodic feeling of little momentum.
The real pathos of "The Road" is the relationship between the Man and the Boy, but it never resonates here. We don't feel the father's bond with his son, shown by McCarthy in spare dialogue, often the same lines echoed between the two.
Mortensen is a fine actor capable of much, and he clearly gives himself to the desperation of the Man. In his ashen, torn face, we sense his anguish, his searing doubt of having brought a child into such an ugly world. But he also doesn't evoke the weighty, terse steadfastness of the Man.
Smit-McPhee's part is too much to fairly ask of a young actor, and the father-son bond never matures. He must be more than a frightened boy, but a child of another world. His goodness is, in some sense, the hope of mankind.
In one of the central scenes to the book and the movie, they come upon an old, dying man on the road named Ely (who suggests the prophet Elijah), played here by Robert Duvall, the highlight of the film. Speaking to him, the Man suggests his son is a god. The Biblical subtext of the story is accentuated with a scene where they take shelter in a church, sleeping below a cross.
Hillcoat, working from Joe Penhall's adapted script, would seem the perfect fit for "The Road." He directed the gritty Australian Western "The Proposition," a visual murder ballad written by the rock musician Nick Cave (who here does the score with Warren Ellis).
"The Proposition," too, had something Biblical about it. It dealt with the last guttural, bloodthirsty roar of rugged 19th century Australia before civilization sets in. In "The Road," the timeline has been reversed; civilization is in the rearview — "the frailty of everything revealed at last," as McCarthy writes.
His jerky, disjointed approach worked well for "The Proposition," but it saps "The Road" of drama and emotion.
Adapting a masterpiece such as "The Road" is a thankless task, but the film doesn't work on its own merits. "The Road" should reverberate with the most central questions of life and death, hope and despair.
And it could have used some more ash, too.