Put 'The Road' back on your Oscar contender ballot
Todd McCarthy is one of my favorite critics, but he's just plain wrong -- let's say plumb crazy -- to dismiss "The Road" as a disaster, as he did in a recent Variety review that shrugged the movie off as a woeful misfire "without any sense of pacing or dramatic modulation." The review clearly gave the Weinstein Co. a massive case of heartburn, since the emotionally poignant but grim John Hillcoat-directed movie needs every ounce of critical support it can get to nudge moviegoers into the theaters when the movie arrives this Thanksgiving.
Happily, the critical reception in other quarters has been much more enthusiastic, with the film getting a warm reception in both Telluride and Venice. It premieres Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I suspect it will earn more accolades. I saw the movie this week and I was amazed how well the film captures the haunting, almost biblical imagery of Cormac McCarthy's novel, offering an affecting portrait of a father and son's perilous odyssey across a bleak, post-apocalyptic America. We are offered a few glimpses of shared humanity, but the film is dominated by an air of desperation as men are reduced to their baser instincts in a quest for survival.
Despite the book's commercial success and literary pedigree, it's still a wonder that the movie got made at all. Much of the credit goes to Nick Wechsler, a veteran producer (his credits include the "The Player," "Quills" and the recent "The Time Traveler's Wife") who's always had an interest in provocative dramatic material. When the McCarthy manuscript started making its way around Hollywood, a number of studios made offers on the book, which had attracted interest from such disparate filmmakers as Clint Eastwood and Darren Aronofsky.
But Wechsler felt it was important to go the indie route. "I didn't want to develop the material through a studio, simply because I thought we needed the freedom to nurture it outside the system," he explains. So instead of taking the project to a studio, Wechsler teamed up with Steve and Paula Mae Schwartz, owners of a successful independent public relations firm, who provided the development money. Although he had access to better-known filmmakers, Wechsler had been impressed by Hillcoat's film "The Proposition," a 19th century revenge story set in the Australian Outback, so he sent the manuscript to Hillcoat, who fell in love with it. "John told me that, in fact, 'The Proposition' was his homage to Cormac McCarthy, so when I sent my offer to Cormac, I included a copy of the movie," Wechsler told me. "He thought it was a great film and I think it really helped us make a deal right away."
It was Hillcoat who suggested having Joe Penhall, a British playwright, adapt the book. Once Penhall had finished the script, Wechsler brought it to Todd Wagner and Marc Butan at 2929 Productions, where he had a first-look deal. They agreed to put up the financing for the film, which cost roughly $20 million to make, thanks to some tax rebates from Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Oregon, where they filmed.
The biggest wild card in the whole process was settling on a domestic distributor. Wechsler had interest from a variety of distributors, but he says his most persistent and passionate suitor was Bob Weinstein, even though Weinstein's Dimension Films is best known as a genre grindhouse for horror films and teen comedies. Wechsler had some bumpy history with the Weinsteins, having aroused their ire by publicly rebuking them for burying "The Yards," a James Gray drama that was dumped in 2000 after the Weinsteins (then running Miramax) decided it had little commercial potential.
But as a pragmatic producer, Wechsler was willing to forgive and forget. He simply was looking for the happiest home for his new film. "Bob's passion for this film was ferocious and overwhelming," Wechsler said. "It felt like if we did this right, Bob could make this his lifetime achievement project. There was just something about the story that made him want to take a leap of faith."
The McCarthy pan in Variety caused a few heart palpitations -- ''we were sick at heart about it" -- but Wechsler says everyone has moved on. "There are so many other good reviews out there that I think it will be seen as an aberration. The people in the street who've seen this film, both in Venice and in Telluride, have all had a hugely emotional reaction to the storytelling. I think we're going to have some real wind in our sails by the time the film arrives at Thanksgiving."
I think Wechsler is right. It's time to put "The Road" back on the Oscar contender list. Like the Coen brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men," it is yet another example of how a talented filmmaker can capture the dark grandeur of a brilliant writer working at the top of his game.