In 'The Road,' World Ends With Whimper

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The Road's grim vision sold a lot of books, but was regarded as so unlikely to attract a movie audience that it sat on Hollywood's shelf for more than a year. Talk circulated about attempts to sweeten it. But it seems unlikely that many viewers will complain that the movie is insufficiently bleak. There may be other complaints.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

Movie audiences have been through a lot lately. In the film "2012," it was earthquakes, volcanoes and tidal waves that ended civilization. Now comes a quieter apocalypse. "The Road," based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, shows the world ending not with a bang but with a whimper. Or maybe that's just our critic Bob Mondello whimpering.

BOB MONDELLO: Director John Hillcoat devotes fewer than 30 seconds to the cataclysm that ended the world as we know it. "The Road" is mostly the story of a father and son trudging through a desolate landscape with just a shopping cart of possessions. Only in flashback do we see the moment when Viggo Mortensen wakes up in a comfortable bedroom to the sound of a soft rumble outside his window. The room glows amber and ashy when he pulls back the curtains for a second, takes a deep breath and, without a word, rushes to fill the bathtub with water.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Road")

Ms. CHARLIZE THERON (Actor): (as Character) What's happening? Why are you taking a bath?

Ms. VIGGO MORTENSEN (Actor): (as Character) I'm not.

MONDELLO: That was the man's pregnant wife resting her hand on her belly as if to comfort the child who will soon be born into this grim new world. And that's it for cinematic pyrotechnics. We never see what the man saw out that window, but we see what came after and its breathcatchingly realized mostly in sooty, grimy, grays.

A world virtually devoid of life, no green anywhere, no birds chirping, not so much as a gnat to keep the man and his son company, just bleak terrain, dead tree trunks snapping in the breeze and a few scavengers who've been reduced to cannibalism. Oh, and a nearly blind Robert Duvall, who's not what you'd call cheery company.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Road")

Mr. ROBERT DUVALL (Actor): (as Character) I knew this was coming. This was something like it. They were warnings. If there is a God up there, he would have turned his back on us by now. And whoever made humanities will find no humanity here. (Unintelligible). So beware.

MONTEBELLO "The Road's" grim vision sold a lot of books, but was regarded as so unlikely to attract a movie audience that it sat on Hollywood's shelf for more than a year. Talks circulated about attempts to sweeten it. There's nudely(ph) music that might conceivably be a sentimentalizing tactic, and unrelenting optimists may note one very tentative sign of rebirth. But it seems unlikely that many viewers will complain that "The Road" is insufficiently bleak.

There may be other complaints. In a novel, it's enough to suggest that there's no sign of life besides a few bedraggled people. But on screen, that's made visual and you're thinking, a world where rats have perished, but humans haven't? Where there aren't even bugs to eat? How can that be?

Still, grant "The Road" its bleakness, and note that the director sure knows how to make it cinematic. Dystopias come and go. But in "The Road," the end of the world feels about as real as you'd ever want it to.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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