A father and son are transformed into homeless scavengers by a cataclysmic event: the destruction of the world. The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen as a once-civilized man shepherding his 11-year-old boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) through an America ravaged into rubble, is adapted from Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning 2007 novel. Whoa! That means film junkies, sucking on the jugular of Twilight escapism, will smell art and run like hell. For snobs, the default position is that no mere film can match the biblical ferocity of McCarthy's prose.
From the looks of things, The Road is fighting a losing battle. Not to director John Hillcoat, whose Aussie-based The Proposition was an underrated gem. Working from a bare-bones script by the playwright Joe Penhall, Hillcoat goes to the core of the tale: the battle of man and boy to preserve their humanity. The movie resides not in descriptive language but in the eyes of his protagonists. And there the film finds its unique identity. If Hillcoat had erred in the casting, if Mortensen and Smit-McPhee had let an ounce of Hollywood slip into their performances, the movie would have been unendurable. But the two actors triumph, drawing us into their characters' bruised hearts and minds.
What we see of mankind, shot with riveting austerity by Javier Aguirresarobe, is mostly horrific. The few who survive have utterly lost their moral compass. Father and son stumble on a house where human cannibals chain up a supply of writhing, screaming, naked victims in a marinated state of terror over being the next meal. The father's only defense is a gun, with two bullets.
As man and boy head south across a sunless landscape to a mythic coast, dragging supplies in a cart out of one of Samuel Beckett's endgames, the film is almost lost in abstraction. But Hillcoat keeps it as real as the blood the father chokes out of his lungs. Computer effects are minimal. Desolate parts of Pennsylvania, Oregon and Louisiana filled in for the barren, silent, godless road, presumably to the horror of their tourist bureaus.
The father, fearing for his health and sanity, is sustained only by his love for his son and his need to protect him. Encounters on the road with a thief (Michael K. Williams) and an old man (a superb Robert Duvall) rouse his vigilance. Compassion comes easier to the boy, who was born just after the apocalypse. All he knows comes from his father, except for a found can of Coke that still holds its fizz and a bomb shelter — stocked with water, packaged food, battery-fueled lamps and warm blankets — where the boy experiences the creature comforts of a forgotten age. Ironically, this scene of solace is the film's most painful for being so short-lived. All we know of the father comes from flashbacks, in which Charlize Theron plays the wife and mother. These scenes are jarring, a false hint of escape in a film that needs to scream, "No exit." Still, Theron's strong portrayal renounces sentiment for truth as the wife chooses death over non-life. Theron catches the chilly power of McCarthy's words: "She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift."
Remarkably, coldness does not rob the film of raw emotion, echoed in the resonant score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Mortensen is astounding at showing a father trying to instill in his son now-outmoded moral values. "We're the good guys, right, Papa?" the son pleads. The father's assent is the allowance he makes toward hope. As the father must let go of his promise never to send his son out into the darkness alone, The Road becomes heartening against the odds of what McCarthy called the "dimming" of the world. In this haunting portrait of America as no country for old men or young, Hillcoat — through the artistry of Mortensen and Smit-McPhee — carries the fire of our shared humanity and lets it burn bright and true.