Equal parts post-apocalyptic horror and arthouse drama, John Hillcoat’s much-delayed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is as unrelentingly grim and gruelling as anyone who has read the book might reasonably expect. But it’s also, at times, undeniably moving, at its core this is a heartbreaking story of parental love, and the ends to which a father will go for his son.
In an America devastated by an unexplained catastrophe, a Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his ten-year-old Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trudge along its scorched highways, foraging for food and shelter among the abandoned homes, derelict buildings and blackened landscape, all the while heading south, towards the sea. “It is blue?” asks the Boy. “I don’t know,” replies the Man. “It used to be.” When they get there, it’s as grey and lifeless as the land.
Every day is battle for survival, an endless, repetitive slog through barren terrain, subsisting on beetles and bugs, having to keep constant watch for marauding gangs of gun-totting cannibals that trawl the very same roads, on the lookout for someone to eat. In one house, Man and Boy enter a basement full of unimaginable horrors, emaciated human victims awaiting slaughter. In another, an underground bunker offers food aplenty and a welcome respite for the unending drudgery of their journey, together with such simple, forgotten pleasures as hot water, a bath, and tins of Del Monte’s fruit cocktail. One time they meet an Old Man (a virtually unrecognisable Robert Duvall), they share some food and some talk, and then walk on.
Joe Penhall’s spare, tense script is largely faithful to the source material, save the presence of a few too many flashbacks to the Man and his pregnant Wife (Charlize Theron) in both their pre-catastrophe life and after, when, despondent and scared, she advises suicide as their only option. “They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us,” she tells her husband, matter-of-factly. Later, she takes the easy way out. Through the front door, and out into the icy cold night, never to be seen again.
Bleak, intensely pessimistic and with scant promise of a rosy future, The Road makes few concessions to an audience. Production designer Chris Kennedy’s remarkable evocative of a dying world is, ironically, a thing of chilling, desolate beauty. Shot on location in a Katrina-devastated Louisiana and on Pennsylvanian’s “Abandoned highway”, the film presents a ruined land of charred, skeletal trees, perpetual rain, raging firestorms and drab, grey skies choked with smoke, devoid of animals, colour and hope.
But this is Mortensen’s movie make no mistake. Physically gaunt and spiritually haunted, his raw, convincing portrayal of an anguished man driven on through all adversity by his undying love for his son — prepared to do anything to keep him safe, even killing him — anchors what is a harrowing, difficult but often powerfully affecting film.