The Road by Cormac McCarthy is about a father, never named, who is heading south with his son (The Boy) in a post-apocalyptic world where our biosphere has died, no animals or wildlife survive and the few humans still on the planet battle starvation and packs of roving cannibals. With the exception of a brief encounter with a squid, the book is a long, eloquently-written fable about every father in the world trying to raise his son through these times of doubt and uncertainty. The Man is constantly thinking of using one of his last bullets on The Boy, should he have to, much like each father could potentially abandon his son to the real world while their ward is under-prepared.
If the book was a moving experience that compared raising a child to the apocalypse, the movie concerned itself with showing us what raising a child in the apocalypse would look like. Because the novel this film was based on is so entrenched in using text as a means to deliver the story and theme, the movie feels like a parallel experience, where, by observing these characters, director John Hillcoat spends an hour establishing things the book had down in fifty pages. Interestingly, what we, the audience, have gotten out of this are two distinct experiences dealing with the same subject matter. The book is better, but the movie isn’t just reiterating the purpose of the book.
Make any sense?
The Road, the film, is made up of bleak landscapes and a score by Nick Cave that alternates between making itself known and hiding in the background when it should be taking the thematic reins. The visual aspect of The Road, the stark reality of seeing skinny naked-Viggo-Mortenson-butt, is its greatest strength. Power lines pepper the horizon like crucifixes, steam liners burn while beached on highways, abandoned suburbs…well, damn, they’re always creepy.
Viggo Mortenson does a great job, as always, as The Man, even though his main objective in the film is just to stay alive and keep The Boy safe. There isn’t a great deal on screen for Mortenson to work with. His Man is harsh, but is also well aware that his child was born after the unseen apocalypse and thus doesn’t know about things like manners, smoking or alcohol. Hillcoat and Mortenson have a secret pact throughout the film, and that pact is that, up until The Boy argues back for the first time towards the climax, The Road is from the perspective of The Man. When we see flashbacks of The Woman (Charlize Theron is a strong but brief performance), we always hear the conversation, we see what The Man sees. We only get one scene of “romance” between The Man and the long-dead Woman, and that’s in a single-shot-flashback that only concerns itself with healthy-looking hands learning to play the piano.
The Boy, played by Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, matches Mortenson beat-for-beat in an impressive performance by a child actor. Considering The Boy in the book was frequently the physical cipher for emotional and philosophical discussion, Smit-McPhee manages to bring his wide-eyed reactions shots to new levels of emotion, as long as you remind yourself at the beginning of the film that this kid has never seen anything you and I would describe as “the normal world.” In one scene, when Mortenson’s Man is dangerously close to offing his Boy rather than turn him over to cannibal-rapists, The Boy responds to the cocking of the pistol’s hammer with “When will I see you again?” and the tension of the moment gives way to the realization that death means nothing to a child being raised amongst the walking inhabitants of hell.
Appearances by other characters are sparse, but – like all fables – there are a few along The Road to provide context and dialogue. Robert Duvall’s Old Man serves the same purpose as every blind, old man in fables throughout history and The Wire’s Michael K. Williams shows up as The Thief, the character that provides the tipping point for the divide between The Man and The Boy.
All and all, The Road will provide you with a bleak experience you won’t necessarily mind having as long as you follow your screening with a solid meal and a good night’s sleep under a blanket. The sad thing is that the book never left my mind for a good week after I finished it, and even friends who have not read the book seem to be okay with the movie the next day. The book is one experience and the movie is another, but instead of offering high praise, like “each is the other’s equal,” I can’t help but think that I’ll face the apocalypse of fatherhood but the desolate landscape of The Road is as distant to me as most science fiction.