I was right to be apprehensive about watching "The Road," John Hillcoat's adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cormac McCarthy novel. Watching it was not a pleasant experience, and I'm glad I was in the right setting before I sat down with it. But that said, it was certainly an experience worth having, and the film turned out to be one of the strongest science-fiction pictures in a very good year for the genre.
"The Road" follows a father and his young son, both unnamed, some years after an unexplained cataclysm struck the world. The sun was blotted out, leaving a cold, gray landscape dotted with dead trees, and a dwindling population of human survivors struggling against starvation and despair. The father (a grizzled Viggo Mortensen) is determined to protect his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from a constant barrage of horrors as they journey toward the distant sea. Their greatest threat comes from other desperate survivors searching for food, who are willing to rob and kill for it. The specter of cannibalism is a constant fear.
Violence and death permeate the story, even during the quieter moments. In one early scene, the father instructs the son on how to use their pistol to commit suicide, with a calm directness we might expect if he were explaining how to use a flashlight. Despite the grisly subject matter, there's relatively little graphic content. Rather, much of the film's effectiveness comes from maintaining a mood of unrelenting bleakness. The father's struggle to care for his son spurs him to bravery, but also to acts of cruelty. There appears to be very little humanity left in most of the other human beings we meet.
The only one who seems relatively unaffected by the oppressive atmosphere is the boy, who is appropriately frightened when danger looms, but doesn't share the same hunted, haunted air as his father. He acts as a moral compass, who asks for his father's assurances that they're "the good guys," and is more willing to risk contact with other survivors. The father-son relationship, and the tension between the adult's knowing distrust and the child's innocent hopefulness are at the heart of the film. Though there are plenty of chase and action sequences, the better scenes are pauses between, when we get to watch them simply interact.
Mortensen and Smit-McPhee both deliver fine performances, especially Mortensen in world-weary survivalist mode. There's a little expository voice-over at the beginning of the film to set the scene, but otherwise the dialogue is sparse and we learn about the characters mostly through their physical acts and behavior. Covered in heavy clothing or bundled in blankets, with Mortensen in a full beard, there's a refreshing lack of posturing and artifice here. Small, intimate scenes of sharing food or rest are often the most illuminating. It's only very late in the story, after the relationship becomes strained, that the extent of their dependence is explicitly revealed.
Flashback sequences give the audience glimpses of life before the cataclysm, when the man's wife, the boy's mother was still with them. Charlize Theron nicely fills the role, though she isn't given much to do. Robert Duvall, Michael K. Williams, and Guy Pearce make more of an impression as other survivors who our leads meet along their way, though they have even more abbreviated scenes. The other characters are mostly aggressors and the occasional victim, all dehumanized to some extent. Hillcoat does a great job of making them menacing and monstrous without ever getting too specific.
For a post-apocalyptic film of such desolation, the visuals are stunning. "The Road" takes place in a perpetually overcast world of harsh, broken vistas filled with driftwood and debris. The magnificent cinematography might as well be in black-and-white, as the predominant palette is all in shades of gray, emphasizing coldness, silence, and stillness. When the boy spots a faint rainbow in the spray of a waterfall, he's transfixed. It's only in the father's gauzy flashbacks that we see a full spectrum of colors, made all the more hallucinatory by the desaturated gloom that he's forced to wake up to.
"The Road" wasn't as nihilistic as I had been lead to believe, but it is a very intense film that deals in uncomfortable themes and unhappy emotions. At the same time, it manages to come off as life-affirming, and the ending was surprisingly positive without betraying the dark tone. I'm not sure I liked "The Road" as much as I appreciated it. The idea of the film still makes me automatically wince, but after watching the film itself, I'm glad to report that the filmmakers did justice to difficult material.