Following 2007’s brilliant Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men, and faced with the decision of what to do with your fancy new McCarthy adaptation, the best, most exciting decision you could possibly make would be hiring John Hillcoat, the man who made The Proposition, just about the best ever film adaptation of a book McCarthy forgot to write. Hiring Viggo Mortensen, a mad mastermind of an actor when he wants to be, is the second-best decision you could make. It seemed, thus, that everything was in place for The Road to just tear up the film world, and indeed, to whisper something confrontational to No Country for Old Men and ready its fists for a prime licking. The rhythms of this paragraph likely signal a huge, heaping “but”, and that they do. They also likely signal a bad film. That they do not, thankfully. But they signal a decent film where a masterful one might have been, and that is almost as bad.
Hillcoat’s blast of filmic fever starts off on the right foot, with a narrative that is even more primal, and more nihilist, than The Proposition. Hillcoat absolutely understands the terse, precise language of McCarthy’s writing, where every word hits like a bullet coated in vinegar. What’s more, he manages something even the Coens did not when they transformed No Country into their own curious, furious beast: the nature and essence of McCarthy’s words adapted to visual language. The whole is absolutely McCarthy, and even McCarthy read past himself. It’s a perfect visual representation of the material.
And then we have Mortensen, who gives a non-performance as a tired punching-bag of a person completely incapable of acting – and it is acting to rival anything he’s ever done. Mortensen, forever known for The Lord of the Rings, has really only been “figured out” by David Cronenberg, but Hillcoat proves that he knows a good Cronenberg move when he sees one. The actor has never really gotten the credit he deserves, largely because he is only good at one thing (basically anything that puts his laid-back, low-key presence to the use of playing a bored or drained human incapable of emotion, or one who is sinister in his pure boredom). And that thing, incidentally, is not exactly Oscar-ready material or populist Sunday afternoon fair. But in this mold, if used properly, Mortensen is a dynamite blow for any film, and he’s arguably never been used better than here.
So the film is exquisitely made. Too exquisitely, in fact. While the experience is handsome and muscular, it sometimes drowns in its own drunken sorrow and despair, struggling to bat down its own sepulchral fatalism. Any blackened energy is left by the wayside, with the bits of filmic impressionism and playful mythic imagery that characterized The Proposition replaced with something altogether drearier and more solemn. If The Proposition was brutal and unflinching, Hillcoat at least had some fun with the material, channeling the despair into an opportunity for a study in the filmmaking of organized chaos. Here, the palette is appropriately gray and deadened, and everything is exceedingly, brutally poetic in the lived-in mundanity of the environment.
The Road absolutely nails this mood, but that’s kind-of all it even attempts. The set design, Mortensen excepted, is undoubtedly the MVP of the film, suggesting so much of the past histories and emotional haunts of this world, little details adding up to a convincing vision of extraordinary emptiness. But it’s so contained and formalized in its woe it ends up feeling oddly stuffy and maudlin, like something more deranged and dangerous is waiting to get out but can’t get past the rigid filmmaking. The end result is a film that is in every sense extremely well made, but it feels slightly hollow and rote in its funereal gloom. At the least, relative to how good this film could have been, it’s a shame that it is merely good in the way normal “good” films are good, rather than in the anxious, destructive, enigmatic, soul-altering way this film should have been good.
It would seem that “vaguely mythic depictions of edges-of-society moonshiners in the Depression-era South” ought to serve as the perfect clothesline for John Hillcoat to string his not inconsiderable talents along on. We have, in descending order: a barren location where the physical and emotional are inextricably linked in the struggling men and women who survive off of that location, the sense that this location cannot be separated from the myths and lies spread about it to the point where fact and fiction are one in the same, men and women who do not so much live as find a reason to survive another day, and a detached, formless sensibility that more closely approximates episodism than narrative.
In a nutshell, that is Lawless (would that it were still The Wettest County in the World, but you know marketers). And again, Hillcoat proves himself a craftsman of exquisite value. The first quarter, at least, is dynamite in its lived-in impression of a world less stated than rumored. We can positively hear the little details of the characters whispered around town like so much dust being kicked up, infesting everything. And the inability to tell fact from fiction fits the run-down mysticism Hillcoat has now officially attached himself to as a filmmaker. Again, a Depression-era town haunted by poverty and whispers of the American Dream, the kind of place where a successful outlaw becomes hero and villain to young men whose ears perk up two ways when he comes riding in, is just about the perfect sense of place for Hillcoat to be let loose in. And he often does well by it.
But, again, here’s the thing: too well. Too conventionally well. The big difference between 2005 and 2012 is that Hillcoat has money and A-list casts to play with now. Perhaps expectedly, the wonderful rough edges that threatened to un-spool off the screen and into our souls in The Proposition now seem boxed in and self-contained as a result. Perhaps worse, his contained filmmaking struggles to convey the nuances of these characters with a script that is perhaps too mythic for its own good. We end up with something that often approaches bro-ish sentimentalism toward the three rough-and-tumble brothers that center the tale, a sort of generic “they’re the rugged individuals against the man, and its America, so let’s just support everything the rugged individuals do because that’s how America rolls” strain so smitten with individualist Americana to this day. One could argue the mythic tone of the film self-consciously explicates on how this myth is a lie constructed as a nursery rhyme for American dreams, but then we come back to that filmmaking which is just too tepid to support the claim for the most part. Hillcoat finds himself too interested in telling a conventional story for his filmmaking to stew and bubble up a particularly self-reflexive witches’ brew behind the scenes. Everything is right up on the surface, and not to the film’s benefit.
The other problem with the film, and why it’s so confused, is that it desperately seems like it wants to be much more than a surface level piece; the restrained, vaguely impressionist directing conveys not a “hey look at me” gesture but a more thoughtful “let’s wait and let the film wash over us to unlock its mysteries” sensibility. Yet over the course of such a broad narrative (with many years gone in time) this day-to-day filmmaking ceases to be perceptive. Instead, it seems unfocused, messy, and occasionally flat. The unwieldy nature of Hillcoat’s work, which tries to accomplish far too much for its allotted running time, keeps it from ever attaining the rigor and form its best self might have.
All this negativity, however, really isn’t fair to what is by-and-large a strong effort, professionally made and exquisitely staged, costumed, and produced. The acting in particular is of note – Shia Labeouf has never been better, Tom Hardy is typically stunning, Jessica Chastain presents one of the most pained, destroyed female characters of the 2010s yet, and Guy Pearce is a delicious spook as the film’s proudly cartoonish villain. The lighting is terrific, playing up not only realism but the mythic nature of past films that have commented on Southern identity, and the whole thing is beautiful in just the grubby way it ought to be. There’s so much to like about the film, and quite a bit to love too, but dramatic integrity is not among them (or maybe it has too much professional integrity, and that’s the problem). Hillcoat has yet to make his second truly great film. He’s settled for flash-bang moments of greatness, themselves major pleasures in their own way, swimming around and propping up good works. He can do better, but good is often enough. It just lacks the madman’s spark he has lying somewhere dormant inside him.