Being a writer, working with many other writers, it seems nearly every person I know has read Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece The Road. Likewise, it seems nearly every person I know is to some degree disappointed with John Hillcoat’s ill-advised adaptation of the book to film. I was reluctant to watch the film if only because I thought the book was unadaptable. Whereas McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men used the writer’s sparse language to tell a particularly plot-driven tale that made for a remarkable film, The Road is a book that seems to live in the absence of plot and is compelling in how its characters find hope in a life where every day is a mirror of the last. On film, well, this is kind of boring.
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ The Road – Original Film Score could be seen as a perfect companion piece to the movie, in that it is also meandering and mostly dull. The sad fact is that I watched the movie-adaptation particularly to see how the score was used in the film and, save for a few particularly affecting scenes, found the score hard to find in a film that didn’t really have much blocking it. Now, I am not going to pretend to be an expert in ambient film scores. This is not what I listen to in my leisure time. But, I always thought the most memorable scores had a theme that you could leave the theatre humming or at least remembering. If you went back to relive an affecting scene in your head, the score would be inextricable from the scene. Think Badlands. Think The Last of the Mohicans. Even Brokeback Mountain. The score to The Road rarely enhances any scene, but in its defense, it does not distract from the film, either. But because the film needed a little something, maybe a distraction would have been welcome.
There are some strong moments that combine the score and the imagery. The most obvious of these is the track “The Cellar”. Anyone who has read The Road knew this scene would be the most disturbing of the film and it did not disappoint. The score, likewise, completely changes from its minimal, soothing piano driven tones to include heartbeat pulsing rhythms that delve into the immediate fear the characters are feeling. Other tracks, “The Cannibals” and “The House”, try to use this harsh contrast in tone to less success. But, perhaps the best track on the score is the theme “The Road” and later, its reprise “The Far Road”. Yes, I said the theme is ultimately unmemorable. But, during the moments in the film when the theme is used, the film is ultimately at its strongest. This probably because Viggo Mortenson is narrating a voice-over that actually brings the film back to McCarthy’s haunting words and the simple piano line accompanying it provides a tragic and epic tenderness, matching the sights seen on the screen.
Now, there is really only one reason (well, technically two) why I am writing a review for a film score and why you, theoretically, are reading it. This is the name of the artists who created the score, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Cave is one of the most beloved musicians of the last 30 years and Ellis is his frequent collaborative partner and also a member of The Dirty Three. This is the third score they have made together, after The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, both truly brilliant films. Unfortunately for these artists, this new film does not come anywhere near matching the first two these artists scored together. And if you are simply a fan of Cave’s work with the Bad Seeds or The Birthday Party, this score will simply be a footnote to that rich catalogue.
But does the score stand on its own, and even if it does, should we care? It seems that a score is a companion to a film and not meant to exist outside of it. Listening to a score at home should evoke memories of the film and allow the listener to reengage with the places the film had transported them. The problem is, I don’t want to be transported to a post-apocalyptic wasteland. If you have never seen the film, this could make decent background music to read a book to. I have a recommendation, too.