What would you do to ensure your own survival? How far would you go to protect your most precious loved one? At what point is it better to be dead than to be alive? These questions about the very limits of the human experience drive The Road, John Hillcoat’s cinematic adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men).
The Road at long last comes to the screen after a year’s delay. The wait was worth it: this post-apocalyptic drama is a potent and distinctly philosophical morality play about human instinct, the moral cost of survival, and a father’s love for his child. In a flawless performance, Viggo Mortensen plays one of the last good men standing after an unnamed devastating global event. Mortensen’s character—identified in the credits as “Man,” but called “Poppa” by the “Boy” he keeps in tow—wanders and scavenges to stave off death by starvation. Living under constant threat of the bitter cold and roving cannibals, man and child must also plan for the worst, including the possibility that suicide would be the lesser of two evils.
Despite all signs to the contrary, Boy (well played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) clings more emphatically to optimism about the human spirit, which he characterizes as “carrying the fire” within (and perhaps he clutches to a plush elephant in part because he “never forgets”). The film’s “Woman” (a credibly tortured Charlize Theron) was the Man’s wife and the Boy’s mother, but for reasons that unfold in flashback, she has not made the journey with her men as they cross the barren American landscape. “It is cold and growing colder as the world slowly dies,” Man narrates. “All I know is the child is my warrant. And if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”
No question: The Road is a bleak story, filled with terrors and the cold comfort of a revolver with but two bullets. Still, Man and Boy continually, if narrowly, choose life over death, and at times, their faith is rewarded rather than punished. Hillcoat’s direction is sensitive and tasteful in photography, editing, and special effects, as the film paints a future world in faded earth tones and dim light. Though an important American actor shows up in a textured cameo role (“Old Man”), the picture belongs to Mortensen and Smit-McPhee, who make this admittedly ashen and depressing drama into a powerfully emotional father-son love story.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]