Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films.
Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a spare and grim allegory of father-love amid the ruins of human civilization (indeed, the ruins of humanity itself), was never going to make a quote-unquote 'fun' movie. The despairing images of a dying planet Earth, the relentless threat of vicious predators, the pervasive grief for losses endured and those yet to manifest themselves: it may have won a Pulitzer, but it's the type of art that it can be tough to drag folks into the multiplex to see.
And yet as directed by John Hillcoat from a screenplay by playwright Joe Penhall, The Road is faithful in tone and texture to McCarthy's painful vision and heartening in its moral fiber as well as in its artistic determination and mastery. Hillcoat, who came to attention with the stark and bloody western The Proposition, contrives hopefulness from despair and beauty from decay. He spares little of the harshness of McCarthy's words but discovers a way to infuse his film with the undimmed spirit of them as well.
The Road takes the form of a southward odyssey through the badlands of the former United States of America. A father and son, both unnamed, are forced to flee the oncoming winter because all the food and fuel and safety and comfort that once characterized their homeland have vanished in the wake of an unspecified catastrophe and the subsequent erosion and collapse of order and civility.
Viggo Mortensen, scruffy, hawk-eyed and resolute, plays The Man, as he is known, with a thoroughly convincing blend of fierceness, love, pity, mournfulness and - though it is dying - belief in something better. Alongside him, if only in his reveries of the world before and just after the calamity, Charlize Theron makes you understand why The Man grieves so deeply. And Kodi Smit-McPhee, a slip of a thing, credibly fills their son, known only as The Boy, with guileless innocence and earnest filial devotion.
In the course of their travels, the protagonists encounter dangerous men (including a predatory Garrett Dillahunt) and really dangerous men (such as a house full of sadists and cannibals), and men as lost and nostalgic and helpless in the teeth of fate as they themselves (crabby Robert Duvall, desperate Michael K. Williams from The Wire).
The landscape through which they wend - grey and looming and pocketed with tempting perils such as abandoned houses and shops - is as alive as any of the people they meet. The Road was shot in, among other places, Oregon and Washington, including on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens, and never has our lovely green northwest looked so infernal and uninviting.
In fact, Hillcoat has achieved a kind of uncanny tone with the feel and pace of the film - dreamy and portentous and conveying the weight and horror of a world terribly and permanently altered. Given the relative lack of incident in The Road, its tenor and style are as important as its characters and events, and while that can be an invitation to directorial indulgence, Hillcoat restrains his potency in order to create his own worthy version of McCarthy's world.
The Road walks a tremendously daring and delicate line between inspiration and horror, and it does so not only in the events it depicts but in its very air and atmosphere. It was unforgettable on the page, and it impresses equally, or at least it does so remarkably often, on screen.