The Road – A Movie Review

Though The Road opened around Thanksgiving, it just came to my town a few days before Christmas.  This, along with the multiple delays and reshoots, gave me great concern that the movie would not live up to the source material.

My fears were unfounded.

Absolutely bleak and morose, the film perfectly captured the essence of McCarthy’s novel.  I absolutely believed I was looking at an apocalyptic landscape, especially because they made sure not to go too far over the top.  The landscape was covered with ash and burnt-out cars, but the skies were gray, the trees were bare, the streams ran, and the air was cold.  In other words, the world looked completely recognizable.  Unlike pure post-apocalyptic science fiction that leaves you feeling as though there wasn’t a chance in hell it could happen, The Road made you feel like, yeah, this could be what our tomorrow might hold, and that was a very scary feeling.

When I read the novel, it struck me as a potent work, but my wife and I were not yet parents back then.  Now that I am a father, the storyline took on a whole new meaning for me, and the brilliant Viggo Mortensen utterly conveyed the despair and hope of a father striving against all odds to protect and keep his son alive in practically lifeless conditions.  I believed in Viggo as the nameless protagonist, the everyman, and I saw some of myself in him, as I believe you will, too.

When my friend and I walked to our cars afterwards, another person who was in the theater yelled at us that he wanted his money back.  When I asked him why, he said the little boy was far too whiny for his tastes.  I have to wonder if he had a child himself, and if he did, if he could remember when that child was around nine or ten years old.  Personally, I thought the boy playing Viggo’s son did a great job, and he didn’t strike me as whiny at all.  Most child-actors take me right out of my suspension of disbelief, but this young actor made me believe in the story all the more so.

As a new parent, I particularly appreciated the fact that while The Road maintained much of the savageness of the novel, they did exercise discretion and left some of the more heinous scenes of the novel out, though they did hint at them.  If you’ve read the novel, you can probably imagine what I’m referring to.  There are some things a father simply does not want to see up on the big screen.

Which leads me to another point: I have a lot of trouble imagining someone enjoying this film if they haven’t read the novel.  Don’t get me wrong, I think this film was done about as well as a film can be, but if you have no idea what you’re getting into, I think The Road might be hard to endure.  In fact, some college kids behind us got up and left about half way through the film, mostly because they thought it was boring if I overheard them correctly.  It is a subtle, nuanced story with brief moments of nail-biting excitement, but mostly it is a steady, tense, quiet film with little dialogue and overpowering body language and facial expressions.

It is a relationship study, an analysis of the human will to survive, a social statement on the difficultly of maintaining morality in the face of abundant depravity, and it is magnificent.

Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy – A Book Review

In this third installment of The Border Trilogy, McCarthy brings together John Grady Cole from Book I and Billy Parham from Book II as they work together on a ranch.  Though neither delves too deeply into the tragedies in Mexico they both suffered, their unspoken experiences seem to bind them in ways they can’t understand.

A fitting conclusion to The Border Trilogy, McCarthy gives us the final fates of the two heroes we grew to love in previous volumes, and he does so in true McCarthy style.  While the plot is fairly simple, the book is anything but.  McCarthy once again offers dazzling asides that build characterization and encourages the reader to take ownership in Cole and Parham’s lives.  The task of the savvy novelists is not only to tell a good story, but to draw the reader into the day-to-day existence of his characters so thoroughly that the reader forgets it’s fiction in which they’re vicariously taking part.  McCarthy does just that with Cities of the Plain.

His deceptively complex tale is one that is concise yet expansive, beautiful yet mundane, noble yet tragic.  Like life, it is all these things and more.

No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy – A Book Review

This was my first book by Cormac McCarthy, and I must admit he has won a reader for life. 

No Country For Old Men explodes with subtly and simplicity as it offers us Moss, a man who finds a drug deal gone bad in the middle of nowhere along the Mexican border.  Dead bodies are everywhere, and when he finds a case full of millions of dollars, he can’t help himself.  As you can imagine, there are numerable parties who’d like that money back.  And so the hunt for Moss begins.

Dialogue is terse, details are sparing, yet the story is absolutely riveting and I could not put it down.  For some McCarthy’s violence and unapologetic disregard for his characters’ safety may be upsetting, but I loved his dedication to giving us the story as it could only unfold.

We tend to shower accolades upon authors who give us specific descriptions on every conceivable object within a story.  I personally found McCarthy’s expertise with minimalism refreshing and quite admirable.

I completely recommend you read No Country For Old Men.

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon – A Book Review

Maps and Legends was both a real pleasure and incredibly insightful in a multitude of ways. 

This nonfiction book by Michael Chabon, author of Wonderboys and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, offers a variety of essays that will assuredly please all readers.

That’s not to say that all readers will love each and every one of the essays in this book, though.  However, I know there is something for everyone to appreciate and even learn from in Maps and Legends.

Chabon essentially covers four broad topics in this collection.  He expends great energy discussing trends and personalities in comic books, the art of writing, various aspects of literature, and his own diverse influences and personal background.

Since these are four topics that I’m very interested in as well, I loved almost every single essay. 

Chabon is such an interesting man.  The idea that a Pulitzer Prize-winning author takes the time to lament the death of Will Eisner, acknowledge the brilliance of Howard Chaykin, analyze McCarthy’s The Road, and reveal deeply personal secrets (some even real) from his own life all within one collection, it’s just a pure joy for someone like me to experience.

However, I think the most valuable thing I learned from Chabon in his book is that the term “genre” in literature is not a naughty word.  He analyzes the importance of genre, especially in relation to the short story, and disparages the fact that people’s snobbery towards genre is actively executing the short story.

Furthermore, Chabon is utterly transparent in the essays involving his life, so transparent he even reveals he has lied to us and could be lying at any given moment.  That sort of honesty about deception is a breath of fresh air.

If you’re a fan of comic books, the art of writing, or Michael Chabon himself, I really encourage you to give this book a try.  I think you’ll be pleased with what you read.

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy – A Book Review

Volume II of The Border Trilogy, The Crossing is McCarthy’s follow-up to All the Pretty Horses.  The United States-Mexican border is the only recurring character from the previous volume, but the settings and themes are quite similar.

However, The Crossing is unlike its predecessor in the fact that while All the Pretty Horses followed a fairly linear story, The Crossing resembles exact life in that one never knows what the next day will bring and sometimes today’s conflict has no resolution tomorrow.  Nonetheless, we grow and learn from one day to the next, whether we intend to or not.

The Crossing begins with Billy Parham, a teenager, inexplicably deciding to return a captured pregnant wolf to Mexico and neglecting to inform his parents of the trip.  The plight continues for such a lengthy time that I found myself wondering if the entire book would be about the return of the wolf.

It isn’t.

In true McCarthy style, the wolf’s tale comes to an abrupt conclusion.  However, Billy’s story continues on.

He returns home, only to have a horrifying discovery.  He now must return to Mexico with his younger brother on a new odyssey.  They have a mission, but that mission soon gets derailed and practically forgotten.

After a great deal of conflict, Billy finds himself alone once more and returns to America.  He wanders for several years and then resolves to return to Mexico a third time and find his brother.  What he does when he finally locates his brother will both stun and touch you.

McCarthy writes The Crossing in elaborate detail that sometimes can lull your interaction with the book.  However, just as things become almost dull, he jars you back to full alert.  Because of this, I like to compare this book to real life because follow-through is so rare in our day-to-day affairs.  We never know what to expect and predictions are so infrequently accurate we wonder why we bother in the first place.  McCarthy understands such nuances of true life but manages to synthesize such reality with enough drama and conflict to keep the reader invested.  We follow Billy on an epic journey that plays out over years and we watch him grow from a boy to a man, experiencing hardship that would annihilate most people.

I wouldn’t say The Crossing is one of my favorite reads, but I learned a great deal from the author about pacing and description.  I also learned more Spanish from this novel than three years in high school and understand the complexities of horses and camping on the open plain far more than I ever could have imagined, thanks to this book.

No Country for Old Men – A Movie Review

It’s a rare occurrence indeed when a film adaptation lives up to its source material, but with No Country for Old Men, Ethan and Joel Coen have done right by Cormac McCarthy. 

In McCarthy’s novel, he is terse and economic with details.  The book moves at an incredibly frantic pace and he shows no mercy to any of his characters.  Often violence is implied and sometimes even painfully described.  The Coens made sure not to deviate from this established tone.

Because they work in a visual medium, the Coens not only had to capture the essence of No Country for Old Men, but they also had to literally show us what these characters looked like, all the way from their faces to their boots.  McCarthy allowed the reader to fill in quite a few visual and auditory gaps, but the Coens had no such luxury.

And so, in my mind, we were awfully lucky the Coens found the perfect Moss and Chigurh in Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem.  Brolin oozed the silent, capable resourcefulness of Moss while Bardem took a character who had thus been sparsely described and created cinematic gold. 

Chigurh is unsettling in the novel, but in the movie the Coens and Bardem make him a terrifying study of subtle villainy.  I don’t think Bardem raised his voice even once in the movie, but his empty facial expressions and slight voice inflections were more nerve-wracking than any chest-thumping or profanity-laced tirades.  Too often villains simply become the reverse of the protagonist.  Not in No Country for Old Men.  Not by a long shot.  Each character is his own man, far and away.

From a cinematic point of view, the Coens were marvelous with their choice of shots, locations, costumes, props, and acting directions.  There’s a particular scene near the beginning of the movie where a man is strangled while laying on his back upon the floor.  Graphic, yes, but what impressed me to no end is the fact that the Coens made sure the man’s boot heels left hundreds of scuff marks on the tiled floor.  That sort of attention to detail is much appreciated.

Some may feel the Coens offered too violent of a film.  I think it’s important to note that they embellished nothing from the novel.  The movie is one of the purest adaptations I’ve ever seen, and McCarthy wrote one very violent, unapologetic, merciless novel. 

I personally am grateful to the Coens for taking a masterfully written novel and treating its subject matter just as the author intended.  It would seem that because they converted literary art to true cinematic art, they were amply rewarded.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy – A Book Review

The first volume of what’s known as The Border Trilogy, All the Pretty Horses encompasses what I love about McCarthy’s writing.

 

Set in the late Forties, All the Pretty Horses follows teenage Texan John Grady Cole seeking a better life for himself in Mexico.  He travels by horse with his slightly older friend, Rawlins, and on the way down they join up with a very young teenager named Blevins.  They can tell Blevins is trouble, and he causes them more problems than they ever could have imagined.  But John also finds some danger without the help of Blevins, and it involves the daughter of his new ranch boss that he just can’t quit.

 

McCarthy offers a bit more descriptive narration than I care for in this work, slowing it down at times, but his tight-lipped, capable, honorable, humble, and just plain tough John Grady Cole represents what I enjoy most about McCarthy’s creations.  John Grady Cole is the perfect McCarthy protagonist, and this neo-western perfectly conveys all that it means to be human—love, loss, betrayal, redemption, loyalty, and resolve.

 

It is with great anticipation I look forward to completing The Border Trilogy.