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“The Road” is an adaptation of the 2006 novel of the same name by author Cormac McCarthy, whose novel “No Country for Old Men” was adapted into last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner. “The Road” obviously has similar aspirations: It’s a haunting, beautifully crafted film with great performances, but it still falls somewhat short of its goals.
The movie takes place in a near future where the planet has been devastated by an apocalyptic event. We never find out exactly how the world ended, and none of the characters seem to know either. But the skies are always gray, there are constant earthquakes and fires, and nearly all vegetation and animal life have been wiped out. What’s left of the human race has mostly descended into violence, anarchy, and cannibalism just to survive.
Viggo Mortensen (credited only as “The Man”) travels the desolate countryside with his son, Kodi Smit-McPhee (credited as “The Boy”). Charlize Theron, “The Wife”, is glimpsed only in flashbacks to the times before and immediately following the apocalypse. From the start of the film, it’s apparent that she’s been dead for many years, but she left her husband and son with very simple instructions: go south.
The Boy was born after the devastating event, so he has no knowledge of what the world was like before. His father discovers a decade-old Coke can in a vending machine, and the son’s lack of recognition provides one of the film’s few lighthearted moments.
Father and son are barely surviving on whatever insects and canned foods they happen to scavenge. As they make their way south, they’re constantly on edge, looking out for others willing to kill them and eat them. The entire time, the father assures his son that they are the “good guys”, because they’ll never resort to eating people, no matter how bad things get.
The father also carries a gun, with only two bullets left, “One for me, and one for you.” He has to constantly grapple with the possibility of having to kill himself and his son, instead of allowing them both to be captured and eaten.
If this story sounds bleak and depressing, that’s because it is. The film is well made, beautifully shot, and features a great performance from Viggo Mortensen. But as the movie unfolds and the characters endure nothing but endless horror and suffering, you almost wish for them to die so that they can be put out of their misery. The downbeat tone of the movie is relentless, and while it’s a powerful, moving film, it’s not one I particularly have the desire to see again anytime soon.
The weak link in all of this is the actor playing the Boy. Kodi Smit-McPhee is probably better than 90% of child actors working today, but even the world’s greatest child actor probably couldn’t pull off what this role demands. A lot of Smit-McPhee’s line readings are awkward, and at times he makes the whole film feel like a stodgy, old fashioned Hollywood melodrama.
And I don’t know exactly what I’m supposed to take away from this movie. I’m not suggesting truly great films need to have some kind of big message, but they usually do have something unique to say about the human condition. And I’m not sure what this film has to say, other than life without electricity, food, and water would really, really suck.
One could argue that the film makes the case for keeping your moral center and being one of the “good guys” no matter how dire things get, but you can’t say that being an upright citizen works out all that well for Mortensen’s character. At the end of the movie, I was left wondering if all the suffering really served any purpose.
I’m sure “The Road” will receive lots of accolades come next awards season, all of them deserved. But at times, the movie feels like it’s wallowing in misery for the sake of wallowing in misery. It’s a well made film, but a tough sit, and it definitely won’t be for everyone.
John Hillcoat (director) / Cormac McCarthy (novel), Joe Penhall (screenplay)
CAST: Charlize Theron … Wife
Viggo Mortensen … The Man
Guy Pearce … The Veteran
Robert Duvall … Old Man
Garret Dillahunt … The Gang Member
Brenna Roth … Road Gang Leader
Molly Parker … Veteran’s Wife
Michael K. Williams … The Thief
Kodi Smit-McPhee … The Boy