Running time 119 minutes
Written by Joe Penhall
Directed by John Hillcoat
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce
Welcome to the apocalypse. In The Road, the eagerly awaited movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, the end of the world is no longer on its way. It’s already here, bringing misery, desperation, death and no hope for the future. Adapted by Joe Penhall and directed by Australia’s John Hillcoat, it is sad, bleak and unbearably depressing. It is also gripping, shattering and brilliant. Throughout the screening I attended, I heard people murmur “a masterpiece.” I reluctantly agree.
An unnamed cataclysm has destroyed the earth and erased almost every trace of humanity with biblical fury. The cause of this decimation is unspecified—volcanic activity, contagious viruses, nuclear war, a meteorite? But the result is a post-apocalyptic planet of scorched devastation. Across a landscape of ash-covered snow, a father and son called only The Man and The Boy (Viggo Mortensen and young newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) are somehow miraculously still alive and pushing a shopping cart on a wrenching journey to the sea. The movie, sparse and bleakly loyal to Mr. McCarthy’s prose, has the same narrative as the book—a grim chronicle of their horror, suffering and determination to survive. There are occasional respites—Robert Duvall as a half-blind old man they befriend in the forest, Guy Pearce as a fellow vagabond on the move, the ecstasy of long-forgotten taste when they discover an abandoned Coca-Cola—but more often they plod along in an existence that is pared to the bone, and it is the author’s poetic vision that must carry us through.
The Man once had a wife (played with terror and passion by Charlize Theron) with whom he debated the question of whether to end it all and save themselves and their son from the rape and cannibalism of wild gangs. In flashbacks, we see The Man cling to one last shred of optimism. “We will get out of this,” he says. But the wife eventually gives up, unable to last one more black, stormy winter of cold and starvation, and The Man is left with his son and only two bullets in his gun—one for each of them. Now, 10 years later, the days are gray as coffins, the crops long gone, cars and machines cracking with rust, farms and fields fallen to dust, the animals dead and the survivors either refugees looking for food and fuel or maniacs feasting on human flesh to stay alive. Dying would seem a luxury. As if their existence isn’t hopeless enough, there is also an earthquake that opens the ground and fells what remains of the barren trees. By the time they reach the sea, as dark and colorless as sewage, The Man is coughing up blood and The Boy is so ravaged with fever that you wonder not only how much more they can take, but how much more you can take.
And still, this is a magnificent picture—as unique and corrosive a view of 21st-century ruin as I have ever seen on the screen. The author has been quoted as saying, “In 100 years the human race won’t even be recognizable,” and now, in his vision of the aftermath of cataclysm, he sets out to prove it. The chillingly realistic art direction and the Oscar-worthy cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe are dauntingly faithful to the blighted global catastrophe described so carefully in the book. To configure charred spaces where buildings once stood and the strange beauty of gutted cities, The Road was shot in post–Hurricane Katrina locations in the Louisiana backwash, and barren sections of Pittsburgh in winter, where remnants of the region’s once flourishing steel mills and coal mines lent to the atmosphere of desolation. The movie creates a bleak space that manages to be both anonymous and oppressively intimate at the same time. High-impact technological graphics and computer-generated effects are gratefully missing. The dramatic tension and narrative suspense come from silences that speak louder than words and explosions, and from the raw and powerful performances. There seems to be no end to Viggo Mortensen’s talents. His portrait of a man driven by spirited parental love, whose last act on earth is to prepare his son for the courage to live without his protection, is so touching that … well, all I can say is, prepare to be emotionally hammered. Young Smit-McPhee, who was only 11 at the time of filming, matches Mr. Mortensen scene for scene with a tenderness and a strength I found inspiring. (The fact that he also looks a lot like Charlize Theron makes him doubly believable.) In the end, it is the little boy’s generosity and caring that invest the story with its last sense of humanity.
But that’s stretching it. Make no mistake, as Nixon used to say. The Road is not an uplifting, feel-good night at the movies. It is savagely unpleasant, but you will not forget its impact. Mixed reviews aside, I will not ponder the box office prospects of a film this daring and original. In a year of relentless trash, I can only shower it with praise for its fearless integrity in creating a work of art that is very valuable indeed.