Palm-sweatingly tense, oppressively tedious, and horribly credible, The Road is a lugubrious trek through post-apocalyptic debris; a chillingly effective, savagely beautiful vision of the world’s end; and a heart-rending, gut-wrenching study of parenthood. Implacable and unyielding, it’s a cautionary, cryptic allegory about the indomitable hope for survival, even in the face of unfathomable horror.
An unnamed father and his young son journey across a desolate landscape, some years after an unspecified cataclysm has destroyed most life on Earth. The land is filled with ash and devoid of living animals and vegetation. Many of the remaining human survivors have resorted to cannibalism, scavenging the detritus of city and country alike for flesh. The duo search for supplies as they travel south to the coast. The man is armed with a revolver carrying two rounds. Fleeing from companions, abandoning possessions, evading roving bands, rummaging, robbing thieves, the man and the boy are forced beyond the brink of civilization.
Australian director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) gives the end of the world an unnerving solidity by focusing on the drab details of survival and linking his characters to the hellish aspects of modern American life. A stealth talent of many shadings, Viggo Mortensen (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) has a way of slipping into any period, any milieu. Through the artistry of Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, Hillcoat captures the essence of the bond between father and son and carries the fire of our shared humanity and lets it burn bright and true.
Hillcoat carves almost verbatim from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, sculpting its tale of despair and faith with great delicacy. Courageous and nerve-wracking, it’s an honourable adaptation of a piece of pulp fiction disguised as high art. Hillcoat is unafraid to wallow in the filth that surrounds man and boy as they march across the shattered remains of the country. The muted greys and cobalt blues of the scarred sky pervade every shot; the concussive soundscape rumbles like thunder in the distance.
Terse, raw, enervating, and unadorned, The Road is a welcome rebuke to happy-face Hollywood apocalypses, which turn mass extinction into farce. On the contrast, The Road is a Trojan-horse blockbuster that promises the wham bam of apocalypse, then delivers the quiet pain of human intimacy along its bleak odyssey.
Paling by comparison to Children of Men, The Road requires extensive emotional endurance, but it’s nowhere close to its literary sire, managing to attain only a fraction of its power. It possesses stunning sweep and grim grandeur, but it ultimately plays like a zombie movie with literary pretensions. As dour as The Road gets, Hillcoat goes a little soft at the wrong time, quietly shepherding his film towards a faint, fading mirage of hope. Is this the way the world ends – with polite applause? Someone like Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) would have had no trouble embracing the material’s uncompromising darkness.
John Milton described hell as “darkness visible.” Even after it’s over, it continues to linger, to burn inside one’s retinas. What has been lost is recognized as infinitely precious; what’s left is bitter and our due. The Road is admirable in its stripped-down drabness, yet in seeking dreariness only up to a point, it misses the opportunity for greatness.