Survivors stuggle on after nature rebels in harrowing, gripping ‘The Road’
If the bleak vision of man’s inhumanity to man in No Country For Old Men wasn’t demoralizing enough, this adaptation of another Cormac McCarthy novel, “The Road,” ought to do the trick. Judging from these two most recent novels (published in 2005 and 2006, respectively), McCarthy no longer has any faith in either the ability or the right of humankind as a species to exist for much longer. Directed by John Hillcoat, from a script by Joe Penhall, The Road is a post-apocalyptic tale of a father and son journeying across a devastated landscape that suggests what might happen if the natural world suddenly turned as savagely self-destructive as the humans who inhabit it.
No explanation is given, nor blame laid, for the end of the world, only that it came with “a blinding light and a series of low concussions.” In the aftermath, a persistent miasma of dirt, dust and chemical gloom chokes the skies, low, rumbling earthquakes are frequent, and disaster is possible at any moment: a forest of leafless tree trunks, say, might implode upon itself for no apparent reason. Society is no more: buildings have collapsed, derelict vehicles line the empty roadways, animals and insect life have disappeared. What few humans remain rove in armed, cannibalistic packs, or become isolated scavengers like the haggard, unnamed protagonist (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
With only one goal in mind—to find the coast and head south, toward whatever elusive hope of relief they might find there—theirs is a never-ending search for food and a safe place to sleep, protected from the savage gangs who would seize the boy and eat him. Taking whatever useful clothing or tools they can find, they travel with a pistol containing two cartridges—one for each of them—should the moment ever come when the father can no longer protect his son. Journeying through many horrific or grisly encounters, a few poignant moments, and one unexpected blessing, the father never wavers in his fierce drive to ensure the survival of his son, whatever it takes—a survival whose point seems ever more dubious.
Instead of just a grim critique of human nature, try reading the story as an allegory of Bush-era foreign policy, with its father figure determined to press forward at any cost to survive. He guards to the death what he calls “the light inside” the boy, referred to at various times as a “new god” or an “angel;” that is, the hope for mankind’s future. But the light has long since gone out inside the father, who descends to ruthless, preemptive violence and bitter cruelty in the name of safeguarding his son, some of it justified, some not. To this end, he views every stranger as an enemy and trusts no one—even people of whom he might have made allies.
Even as we admire the heroic way he both protects and nurtures his son, we’re forced to consider if survival is worth what he must become to maintain it. The film’s major flaw is in setting up this allegorical premise a bit too blatantly, and hammering it home too often; time and again, the father tells the boy that they’re “the good guys,” and everybody else is “the bad guys,” to justify his actions. Other details (like why the animals have died off if humans are still around) are never explained.
Still, as suspense drama, the film powers along, engrossing, tragic, and fraught with dread. Nick Cave provides a suitably spare and wistful musical score. Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce, under layers of grime and rags, pop up in brief, but trenchant cameos, and Charlize Theron makes her presence felt throughout the film with her brief appearances in flashback as the father’s lost wife. The ever-intense Mortensen is a force of nature on two legs, while young Smit-McPhee gives this otherwse bleak and harrowing film a small, stubborn, beating heart.
THE ROAD ★★★ Watch movie trailer >>>
With Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Robert Duvall. Written by Joe Penhall. From the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Directed by John Hillcoat. A Dimension Films release. Rated R. 119 minutes.