2009, R, 119 min. Directed by John Hillcoat. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 27, 2009
I'm not sure which was more of a downer: my first reading of Texan Cormac McCarthy's bleak, end-of-days novel; Oprah Winfrey's championing of the book and its reclusive author; or the inevitable news that The Road was headed for the big screen. The novel, by any standard, is no one's idea of a giddy, fun, summer beach read. It's the story of a father and son (credited as "Man" and "Boy") wandering through a blighted American wasteland beset by some (unnamed) catastrophe. Cannibalism, rape, and worse are the order of the day, but McCarthy's unswerving humanity sees the novel through to a conclusion that is no less wrenching for the rusty sliver of hope it offers. Director Hillcoat proves an inspired choice to helm this film adaptation (from a script by Joe Penhall). Hillcoat is no stranger to the black backside of inhumanity or the sooty visage of hope; he's brought to the screen two fine examinations of Homo sapiens gone feral: 1988's Ghosts … of the Civil Dead and 2005's The Proposition, both penned by perpetual bad seed and morose moaner Nick Cave. Hillcoat's rendering of McCarthy's words can't be faulted for its visual replication of the author's grim picture of mankind's final days. Canted telephone and power poles line the road upon which the man (Mortensen, suitably looking and acting like a man in infinite tooth and bowel agony) and his boy (Smit-McPhee) make their trek southward, aiming to find some sort of lesser evil at land's end. Along the way they encounter an Old Man (Duvall, who, unsurprisingly, seems absolutely normal roaming around at the end of the world) and engage in a deadly game of hide, seek, and devour with a bloodthirsty band of roving, starving, survivalist types. It's Hopeless and Corpsey on The Road to Gehenna but minus Dorothy Lamour's gams and any semblance of anything approaching even grim good cheer. Mortensen, viewed either as a patriarchal Christ figure or simply as a devoted father, works minor miracles in what is essentially a one-note role. Who knew there were so many facial expressions approximating unrelenting despair? The Road deviates from McCarthy's original text via a series of flashbacks to the man's pre-apocalyptic life with the woman (Theron) who both leaves her family behind and is in turn left behind by them. I can understand why Penhall and Hillcoat felt the need for some vague semblance of backstory here, but the sequences with Theron are unnecessary and work at cross-purposes to the blackened heart and ashy soul of what is, ultimately, a near-biblical tale of father and son, certain death, and possible (if improbable) salvation.