At The End Of The World, Another 'Road' To Trudge

W: Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in 'The Road'

The Will To Survive: In a post-apocalyptic landscape where starving humans resort to cannibalism, a father (Viggo Mortensen) has one goal: to keep his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) alive — both fed and uneaten. Macall Polay/Dimension Films hide caption

itoggle caption Macall Polay/Dimension Films

The Road

  • Director: John Hillcoat
  • Genre: Drama, Thriller
  • Running Time: 119 minutes

Rated R: Violence, disturbing images and language

With: Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall

In an era rich in doomsday movies, The Road is the doomiest. It's closely based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, who has grown more and more apocalyptic in his old age. The film doesn't explain the origin of the blinding light we see in flashback, a light that heralds the dying of the planet and the end of civilization: Nukes? A meteor? Project on it what you will. But McCarthy makes it clear he thinks human society will unravel quickly. The road of The Road is prowled by cannibals looking to capture and consume their fellow humans.

But that road is also a metaphor for the blind instinct to survive. A father, called only "The Man," has one goal: to keep his starving son, "The Boy," alive — both eating and uneaten.

Director John Hillcoat made his debut with the cruel, brutal Australian Western The Proposition, and if anything, he's too in sync with McCarthy. There's no relief from the bleakness. The world is monochromatic — all faded browns, grays that go from sooty to milky, and an occasional gush of dark blood. Green is history. Bare trees tumble. Human skeletons dot the landscape.

Viggo Mortensen plays The Man, bearded, smudged, greasy-haired. He exhorts his son to keep what he calls "the fire inside," and that's what we see in his unblinking eyes as his body wastes away. There was once a mother, The Woman, played by Charlize Theron; we see her in The Man's dreams. But she gave up early on her family; only the father goes on. He says in voice-over: "The child is my warrant. If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke."

His impulse might have as much to do with Darwin, with the evolutionary imperative to keep the species going. But it amounts to the same thing. When the Man and Boy meet up with The Old Man, played by a barely recognizable Robert Duvall, the two share a rare philosophical moment over their meager meal.

What a tough, wily actor Duvall is. His Old Man is nearly blind and enfeebled; when we first see him, he appears senile. Then Duvall gives us glimmers of his caginess. This is a survival mechanism, too: affecting frailty to keep from being attacked. For an instant, it seems possible The Man and Boy will adopt him as a surrogate Gramps. But The Man sees him only as a drain on their food.

Photo still from 'The Road' i i

Despite the unrelieved hardship of The Road, the film achieves a kind of sublimity in its extremity. Macall Polay/Dimension Films hide caption

itoggle caption Macall Polay/Dimension Films
Photo still from 'The Road'

Despite the unrelieved hardship of The Road, the film achieves a kind of sublimity in its extremity.

Macall Polay/Dimension Films

As much as The Man fights for his son, their points of view do conflict. The Boy never knew the brotherhood-of-man era, yet he pleads — in a whiny voice that hasn't broken — to share their food, and trembles with grief when his fiercely single-minded father remains unswayed by humanist pleas.

The Man doesn't bully him, though. Maybe part of him wants to keep The Boy a boy. "Are we the good guys?" his son asks over and over, like a question chanted in prayer. "Yes," says his father. But when he punishes and humiliates an inept, rather pathetic thief — played by Michael Kenneth Williams, who was Omar on The Wire — it's hard to know who's good.

I know people who've seen The Road and think highly of it but still wonder, "Why did they make that book into a movie? It's so hard to sit through." Part of me agrees — not because it's a downer but because it's so unrelieved that it verges on monotony. At times, I found myself asking, "What is the point?"

But I also thought of critic Kenneth Tynan's review of Titus Andronicus: "It is our English heresy to think of poetry as a gentle way of saying gentle things," he wrote. "Titus reminds us it is also a harsh way of saying harsh things."

The film of The Road achieves a kind of sublimity — sublime not in the sense of "noble" but "most extreme." Horrific as Mortensen looks, he has a primal, haggard beauty, an indelible image of man in extremis.

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