Dec/Jan 2009

The Road Taken

How does a director find a cinematic equivalent for Cormac McCarthy's poetic, minimalist style?

Bilge Ebiri


John Hillcoat is trying to ignore the pressure. Although the Aussie filmmaker admits that the opportunity to bring a Cormac McCarthy novel to the screen was "a dream come true," he didn't quite expect that audience anticipation would reach such a fever pitch. When he agreed to helm The Road in 2006, Hillcoat was coming off the critical success of the moody outback western The Proposition (2005). That effort attracted the attention of producer Nick Wechsler (Quills, We Own the Night), who had bought the film rights to McCarthy's postapocalyptic drama in advance of publication. McCarthy is one of Hillcoat's favorite novelists (he cites Blood Meridian as an influence on The Proposition), so the director gladly signed on. Little did he know that The Road would not only become a major best seller but win the Pulitzer Prize and get plugged on Oprah. Oh, and in the meantime, the Coen brothers released their own McCarthy adaptation, No Country for Old Men (2007), to critical hosannas and Oscar gold. Suddenly, all eyes were on the relatively little-known Australian. "I got lucky," Hillcoat flatly admits.

Looking over his filmography, however, one can see that the tale, which charts the journey of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) through a blasted, lifeless landscape in the wake of a mysterious apocalypse, fits with the director's prior portrayals of extreme environments. His first film, Ghosts . . . of the Civil Dead (1988), was set in a high-tech prison. That was followed by To Have and to Hold (1996), a story of passion and betrayal in Papua New Guinea, and The Proposition, which portrayed the outback as something out of a Sergio Leone film scripted by Dante. "It's in these kinds of extreme worlds where character really emerges," Hillcoat says. "All my films have touched on how the atmosphere of a place can have a devastating effect on people's lives."

McCarthy's poetic, minimalist style has been called biblical by some; needless to say, finding a cinematic correlative has not been easy. In a document he prepared for his cast and crew before production, "invigorated realism" is what Hillcoat termed the style he envisioned—bold, sparse, and with a heightened sense of detail. Authenticity was key for Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall, not just because they were trying to evoke McCarthy's prose but also because they wanted to refresh the postapocalyptic genre. "Because it's set in the aftermath of a massive disaster, a story like this can easily throw up some quickly established clichés," the director says. "It was important to ground all these things in reality—we wanted to avoid images of collapsed buildings and all that other familiar iconography. Getting through that was a bit of a challenge."

Easier said than done. Hillcoat and his crew "went on a tour of the apocalyptic spots in the US"—Mount St. Helens, post-Katrina New Orleans, the abandoned coalfields of western Pennsylvania. They wound up filming in some extremely harsh environments, under decidedly unseasonable circumstances: "We were shooting during winter in Pennsylvania, and the cold and the bleakness were intense," Hillcoat recalls. Acknowledging it was tough on the cast and crew, he adds, "It allows everyone to understand the material more intimately. When the elements work against you, it's absolutely terrifying. But when they work for you, no amount of CGI can come close."

Not your father's Sherlock Holmes

This summer brought the rather surprising news that two major Sherlock Holmes films would simultaneously be going into production in Hollywood, both supposedly offering significant reboots of the iconic detective. On the one hand, there's the version from Warner Bros., with Guy Ritchie at the helm and adapted in part from a comic book by coproducer Lionel Wigram. It features a more action-oriented Holmes, portrayed by Robert Downey Jr., fresh off his blockbuster success in the superhero flick Iron Man; Variety reported that this Holmes would display "brawn as well as brains." On the other, Columbia's comedic take on Holmes will give us Sacha Baron Cohen, of Borat fame, as the sleuth, with Will Ferrell as his sidekick, Dr. Watson. (Jude Law will play Watson in the Ritchie film.) Needless to say, some purists were worried. One writer for The Guardian lamented: "The mind boggles. In the left corner Sherlock getting involved in over the top ultra-violence and in the right corner a farting Sherlock (or would it be Watson?) with the sensitivity of an average American teenager."

Readers and viewers could be forgiven for thinking that the competing Holmes reinventions indicate a newfound Hollywood irreverence toward Conan Doyle's character. But a quick glance at Holmes's legacy on film suggests otherwise. "The idea of the movies trying to be truthful to the Holmes character is pretty laughable," says Leslie Klinger, author of The Life and Times of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, John H. Watson, M.D., Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Other Notable Personages and editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Setting aside the popular Granada series of the '80s starring Jeremy Brett, which tried to be scrupulously faithful to Conan Doyle's stories and novels, revisionism and refashioning have been the rule rather than the exception. Over the years, we've had Holmes the lovesick melancholic (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes [1970]), Holmes the troubled addict in need of psychoanalysis (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution [1976]), Holmes the precocious schoolboy (Young Sherlock Holmes [1985]), even Holmes the incompetent buffoon (Without a Clue [1988]). The movies have rarely been able to portray literature's greatest detective without introducing some high-concept twist.

This isn't a recent phenomenon. "Prior to the Basil Rathbone–starring The Hound of the Baskervilles, there were probably well over a hundred Sherlock Holmes films, most of them silent—and all of them had been set in contemporary times," says Klinger. Hound and its sequel, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, both released in 1939, may have been the first films with the detective actually in Victorian England. But Klinger notes that the series, and its iconic star, were quickly taken over by Universal, which cut the budget and employed contemporary settings in subsequent films, often with Holmes battling the Nazis. That's right: Even the Rathbone films represented, essentially, unconventional takes on Holmes.

So what accounts for the constant reinvention? Perhaps it's the fact that Conan Doyle revealed so little of Holmes in his stories. "There are a lot of blank pages in the biography," says Klinger. "The very nature of a Victorian male leaves a great deal to explore, because the standard code of conduct was that you didn't talk about your personal life." He notes that we know "virtually nothing" about Holmes's family, for example.

And we know even less about his love life; debate rages to this day among Holmes scholars over whether he in fact had one. "Should we take Holmes at his word that he abhors romance?" Klinger asks. It's easy to predict which side of that dispute the new movies will take: The Ritchie film features Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, whose appearance in Conan Doyle's first Holmes story, "A Scandal in Bohemia," in 1891, has fueled speculation ever since about the detective's feelings for her. In other words, perhaps Hollywood is not so much reinventing Sherlock Holmes as doing what it's always done: giving the audience a hero and a pretty girl.

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