TERRY GROSS, host:
The 76-year-old writer, Cormac McCarthy, is often sighted as one of the best living American novelists. His 1992 novel, �All the Pretty Horses,� won a National Book Award and Joel Ethan Coen made �No Country For Old Man,� into an Oscar winning film. His post-apocalyptic novel �The Road,� won a Pulitzer Prize and was one of the down beat Oprah's Book Club selections. �The Road,� has been adapted into a new film, starring Viggo Mortensen.
Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: 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. He doesn't explain me origin of the blinding light we see in flashback, that heralds the dying of the planet and the end of civilization. Nukes? A meteor? Project on it, what you will. But he makes it clear he thinks human society will unravel quickly. The road of �The Road,� is paved with 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. 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.
(Soundbite of movie, �The Road�)
Mr. ROBERT DUVALL (Actor): (As Old Man) I knew this was coming, this was something like a warning. Yeah, some people call it a con - I always believed in it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DUVALL: (As Old Man) The last man left alive.
Mr. VIGGO MORTENSEN (Actor): (As The Man) How would you know that - that you were the last man alive?
Mr. DUVALL: (As Old Man) (unintelligible)I just know it, just view(ph) it.
Mr. MORTENSEN: (As The Man) God would know.
Mr. DUVALL: (As Old Man) God would know what? God would know what? If there's a God up there he would have turned it back on us by now. Whoever made humanity will find no humanity here. No sir.
EDELSTEIN: 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. 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 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.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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