‘The Road’

A search for sunshine in the black pits of hell


There’s a terrible reality to “The Road” — a sickening, no-exit sensation of being in a waking nightmare. An old Woody Allen maxim has it that people don’t want too much reality from the movies; “The Road” on the other hand, has no interest in what people want but what they can endure.

Gray and cold and gritty with dust, “The Road” has the look and texture of a chunk of fossilized catastrophe, or a fistful of dirt from the site of a nuclear power-plant disaster.

The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy and it captures the utter, unspeakable bleakness of the story — set in the near future when the global climate is locked into a perpetual ice age, all vegetation is dead, food industries have collapsed and mankind is left to fend for itself . . . and fails miserably.

The Road
Director John Hillcoat
Run Time 111 minutes
Language English

The few survivors roam the barren land as cannibals, feeding off the flesh of the weaker ones. Women, children, the infirm and the elderly were their first targets — and in the book there’s a harrowing depiction of a baby roasting over an open spitfire.

That’s not enacted in the movie (let us be thankful for small mercies), but there’s plenty of horrific material. The visuals sting your eyes and settle like briar thorns in the senses. It’s a tough film to take in but the haunting repercussions are even tougher to live with.

The defining factor of “The Road” is absolute darkness and shattering despair. And yet there’s a vein of last-ditch optimism running through the story like the faint strains of a long-forgotten song. The unnamed protagonist, the Man (a gut-wrenching performance by Viggo Mortensen), clings to this barely discernible strand of hope, sustained solely by the presence of his son — the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trudging by his side.

They have left their home (presumably located somewhere in the mountainous northeast) to trek across the American continent and reach the Californian coastline, for no other reason than it may be warm there. All of their belongings, which consist of the Boy’s picture books, a few tools and a pistol with two bullets, are packed into tattered rucksacks and strapped onto their backs. Food is so scarce that the Man has forgotten what it’s like to sit down to a meal. His 10-year old son had never known such luxury. By the time he was able to walk, his parents was already on the run from murderous gangs, and the land had morphed into a giant dust bowl with dead trees blowing in the wind. Their travel to the coast is marked by incidents of hair-raising danger and gruesome violence interspersed by brief moments of relief (an impromptu shower at a waterfall; stumbling upon an ancient can of coke in an abandoned vending machine).

Mostly, though, the Man goes through each hour of every day struggling against the temptation to give up. The two bullets in the pistol are intended for them; the Man’s greatest fear is that when the time comes his courage will fail, or that he will die first and leave his son to the worst fate imaginable. At night he shows the boy how to commit suicide, but for a 10-year-old who has known nothing but hunger and his father for most of his life, it’s hard to understand.

“Will I see you again?” the Boy asks with plaintive innocence and the Man, his face a study in love and agony, finds that he can’t bear to say goodbye no matter how bad things get.

McCarthy’s book was comprised of elegant, economical prose; poetic without tumbling into morbid sentimentality. The movie is cocooned in a brittle and much more hostile environment, alleviated only by miragelike flashbacks of a time when the Man, together with his wife (Charlize Theron), had enjoyed the fruits of a normal, civilized existence (a drive in their car, a classical concert). Those images occur in the Man’s retina like a bizarre daydream before he’s jerked back to reality — to the icy wind slicing through his worn-out down jacket, the awful pain in his feet. But in the end, “The Road” isn’t about nostalgia, it’s about love — the one testament to humanity that remains in the face of total chaos before it too, is brutally swept away.