‘The Proposition’ director John Hillcoat’s film is as direct and unflinching an adaptation as one could reasonably hope for. A man (Viggo Mortensen) and a boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wander the American wasteland after an unnamed ecological disaster. The trees are bare, the animals dead, the few human survivors starving, desperate, often violent, occasionally monstrous.‘The Road’ is certainly the bleakest and potentially the least commercial product in recent Hollywood history. Both book and movie suffer from the same inherent weakness – they exist purely to make you miserable. Sure, there’s a smattering of subtext – a little eco-politics here, a spot of family psychology there – but the central purpose is to break your heart and shatter your soul.
On which level, Hillcoat’s movie is a resounding triumph. Stunning landscape photography sets the melancholy mood, and Nick Cave’s wrenching score reinforces it. But it is the performances that ultimately hold the film together. We expect this kind of selfless professionalism from Mortensen, and McPhee is appropriately sad-eyed as his long-suffering son, but it’s the incidental characters who steal the show, notably Robert Duvall in a startling cameo which not only distils the film’s key themes into a single three-minute scene, but singlehandedly lifts a potentially drab affair into something quietly impressive. Just don’t expect to walk out smiling.