Film Review: The Road

A bleak vision of human life, but intense throughout.

In The Road, director John Hillcoat has performed an admirable job of bringing Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the screen as an intact and haunting tale, even at the cost of sacrificing color, big scenes and standard Hollywood imagery of post-apocalyptic America.

Shot through with a bleak intensity and pessimism that offers little hope for a better tomorrow, the film is more suitable to critical appreciation than to attracting huge audiences, though topliners Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron will attract initial business.

The screenplay by Joe Penhall takes a very different tack from end-of-the-worlders like Children of Men, choosing rigorous, low-key realism over special effects. The story is told largely through flashbacks, which are the memories of a father (Mortensen) struggling for survival on the road with his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Ten years have passed since a series of terrible earthquakes and fires have destroyed the world. These spectacular catastrophes are barely glimpsed onscreen, however. The film unfolds as an anguished forced march in which the father tries to protect the boy and lead them south, to a warmer climate where life may still be possible.

No animals and few men are left in this dying, gray world where no vegetation grows and food stocks have been used up long ago. Bundled in filthy coats, father and son trudge south with a shopping cart containing their few belongings. Hiding from bands of roving cannibals and forever on the brink of suicide, the only human thing that sustains them is the love they share.

Hillcoat and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe create a frighteningly barren world virtually devoid of color, where everything is covered with fine gray ash and even the sea has become gray. Occasional flashbacks to pre-disaster life offer momentary visual respites of color, music and warmth.

Theron, who is pregnant when the cataclysm occurs, appears here as an enigmatic figure both weak and strong, a realist who would prefer that the family save themselves from starvation by committing suicide, as many others have done. But there are only two bullets left in the gun. Her solitary leave-taking, waking out into the night, is a wrenching image.

In this kind of world, horror elements are there for the taking, but are kept in the background apart from one nightmarish scene in which father and son discover a lonely house in the woods. In the locked cellar are a dozen writhing, naked men and women with missing limbs—stock for a band of well-fed cannibals. The duo also makes a narrow escape from a roving gang of rifle-toting desperados aboard a huge truck, who appear out of nowhere Mad Max-style.

Most of the film, however, describes the bond between the still-innocent boy and his weathered, dying father. The boy, several times imagined by his father to be an angel or a god, struggles to find values the adult is unable to give him.

"We're the good guys, they're the bad guys" is the maximum moral guidance Mortensen has to offer. They do shelter in a ruined church and meet a wizened old-timer named Ely (Robert Duvall) who issues prophetic warnings, but the absence of God, and therefore hope, is a given throughout the film.
-Nielsen Business Media