A man (Viggo Mortensen) leads his 10-year-old son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to a new life in a warmer, less violent climate and along the way instructs him on how to shoot himself if he’s ever in danger of being captured by cannibals. Drawn from the canon of author Cormac McCarthy, “The Road” is about what happens when civility and morality give way to Darwinism in its most basic form.
Admittedly, “The Road” is not the ideal Thanksgiving fare, but it will certainly make you appreciate your feast tenfold once you glimpse its post-apocalyptic landscapes in which food and hope have all but disappeared.
It’s a world in which decade-old canned fruit is a delicacy and the highwaymen don’t want your money, they want you for dinner. At least we can take solace knowing that in this parched desolate land populated by filthy, unshaven vagrants that Viggo Mortensen is still the sexiest man alive.
In fact, you could say he looks good enough to eat, which might explain why so many of his fellow survivors are licking their chops in anticipation of incorporating him onto their next batch of stew.
Ah, but I jest; the goings on in “The Road” are far more grim than fricasseed actors. This is about what happens when civility and morality give way to Darwinism in its most basic form. In other words, just another day in the life drawn from the canon of author Cormac McCarthy.
Like “No Country for Old Men,” “The Road” is a violent allegory that would have felt right at home in the Bible. Although God is seldom mentioned, the implications are clear that faith is the only thing keeping Mortensen’s character, simply called The Man, from following his wife’s example and doing himself in. Well, that, and his impassioned quest to lead his 10-year-old son to a new life in a warmer, less violent climate.
Their harrowing journey is the core of Joe Penhall’s sparse, but effective, adaptation of McCarthy’s novel, and it’s a shoo-in to polarize audiences.
The less patient will find it a depressive bore. But if you’re as sucked into this stark, primal world as deeply I was, you’ll sit in awe of great performances by the likes of Mortensen and Robert Duvall and the haunting visuals conceived and perfectly executed by director John Hillcoat (“The Proposition”) and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe.
The film is filled with indelible images of lifeless trees and landscapes coated in a thick white dust that instantly bring to mind the aftermaths of Katrina and 9/11. Even the ocean is a drab, murky gray.
The few splotches of color occur only in flashbacks to the hours immediately after the unnamed cataclysm rocked the one euphoric world of The Man, his wife (Charlize Theron) and their newborn son.
The only problem with “The Road” is the problem with all road movies, and that’s the episodic nature of the genre. But the encounters The Man and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) have with people representing the best and the worst of mankind are so riveting that it can be forgiven.
These encounters range from a tense exchange of words with a scavenger, to a meat locker stocked with live humans, many of them who have already had their arms and legs severed and eaten by their captors.
An encounter with Duvall’s wise but broken-down old man is one of the film’s brightest, and funniest, as The Boy, who has known no other life than the road, treats his new friend like a pet, at one point asking his father, “Can we keep him?”
The best scenes, though, involve Mortensen and Smit-McPhee, in which the father tries to instill a belief in humanity in his son, while at the same time instructing him on how to shoot himself if he’s ever in danger of being captured by cannibals.
Such moments are both shocking and incredibly sad, but there’s also a beauty in knowing that even at the worst of times, the love between a father and son is not just a cliché but also a means of maintaining your sanity.
The two actors also share a chemistry that infuses their every word and action with unsettling realism. And the places they take you both emotionally and geographically are moving in more ways than you thought possible, as “The Road” discovers a path to glory waiting at the end of the route of all evil.
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THE ROAD (R for some violence, disturbing images and language.) Cast includes Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce. Directed by John Hillcoat.