It's both ironic and at the same time strangely appropriate that Australian director John Hillcoat should deliver this diligently faithful adaptation of Cormack McCarthy's relentlessly bleak end-of-the-world parable so soon after the release of Roland Emmerich's bloated pixel-fest 2012. Where as that disaster picture chose to depict the end of all things as a hollow CGI spectacle, pre-occupied with the eye-candy of the event to the exclusion of almost everything else, McCarthy's story makes the event itself almost an afterthought.
Through a story that begins after everything we know came to and end we find a nameless father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit McPhee), who is maybe ten-years-old, on a relentless grueling death march through blackened forests and over barren hillside, hoping to reach the coast before starvation takes them. As they huddle together, filthy, amidst the freezing earth, we come know through dreams and flashbacks that at some point there was a cataclysm and everything was laid waste. It's never made clear what exactly the event was, or whether it was caused by man or some cruel act of nature, and in the context of a hardscrabble existence driven by the unending search for scraps of food and shelter it just doesn't matter.
Simply, The road is unlike any post-apocalyptic movie you have ever seen. There are occasional nods to genre convention, such as roving gangs of rifle-toting thugs scavenging for fuel, supplies (and, more often, human flesh to eat). But this is far from the flamboyant anarchy of Mad Max. People here are simply too hungry and too dispirited for any hint of hedonism. "Cannibalism is the great fear," the father explains. At night he teaches his son to read from the burnt pages of a tattered children's book, and instructs him on the most effective way to blow his brains out "when (not if) the time comes."
In dreams he remembers his wife (Charlize Theron), who gave birth to their son in the wake of the disaster, and who, deciding that it is not enough to simply survive, marched into the darkness one night leaving them behind. But characterized by tones of warm orange sun and sharp pink flora, accompanied by the blissful chirping of birds, these memories of home and hearth are not a comfort, but rather a haunting. A weak indulgence he must rid himself of if he is to properly protect his boy, the angel of what has now become his religion. "If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke," the father surmises.
While it is every bit as crushingly grim it sounds, this is also a story of great optimism, born out of faith in our capacity for kindness. While far from naive about the darker aspects of human nature – the discovery of a human abattoir in a cottage basement is as abhorrent a sequence as you will see this year – the underlying message extols the virtues of our children, the great hope. Reared on the simple, safety-driven mantra of "We're the good guys. We carry the fire. Watch out for bad guys" the boy is a clean moral slate, wandering the decimated remnants of a society he never knew.
Having gradually surrendered pieces of his own humanity in the protection of his son the father is rewarded through the actions of his boy – begging him to share food that they find with a hungry stranger – that showcase the instinctive kindness and compassion of someone who has never known greed. The Road a religious experience built on a series of profoundly secular moments. It's a love story between two people who never say the words. Gorgeously shot by Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresrobe there is a strange, poetic beauty to the charred landscape and oppressive, moody horizons. Never feeling the need to be daring or edgy, the score by regular Hillcoat collaborators Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is a deceptively simple exercise in melodic, melancholic repetition that well reflects the stripped down nature of day-by-day existence. Perhaps not the most appropriate picture to release on Thanksgiving weekend (or perhaps it is?) – but in a time where we waste while others go without it remains a tale well worth pondering.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron
Director: John Hillcoat
Runtime: 119 Minutes
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
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