There are many breathtaking, enduring images in The Road. I suppose that's largely what the film is: a succession of breathtaking images. Director John Hillcoat has created an utterly convincing presentation of what the world would look like after a major, earth-crippling disaster—the trees are burnt black, the buildings vacant and ominous and no one is around for miles. Everything feels chilly and desolate, and the tone of the movie is grim. I'm not sure this is one for the Thanksgiving crowds.
We're never told what ended the world. Viggo Mortensen wakes one night to screams and flames outside his window, and he just knows. He fills the sink and bathtub with water, preparing his family for the long wait for help but no help comes. Years later, people have begun to starve and die out, and those left must be either very smart or very cruel. It is in such a world that the man and his son, born after the apocalypse and who knows no other world, struggle to make it to the coast seeking warmth. The story follows their contacts with other survivors as they cross the countryside, attempting to avoid the dangers of the road.
Life in the post-apocalyptic world is bleak, and the terrors that the pair encounter are unique to a world dismantled. Confronting thieves and cannibals, Hillcoat's camerawork is open and lingering, but his refusal to shy away from the horrors of the road never feels like exploitation for shock, instead it gives the film room to breathe and creates a rhythmic pacing. Those looking for an explosive action film ought to look elsewhere, there is no bombast in these encounters. Facing death is just another day on the road.
All the memorable scenes from Cormac McCarthy's book are intact, so fans of the book who cried foul at some deviating images in the trailer can stop sharpening their knives. There are a few extended moments with the boy's mother—possibly to give more screen time to Charlize Theron—but, they are short and add nicely to the narrative. Viggo Mortensen impressively throws himself into his roles and his performance in The Road is no exception. His body is frail and filthy and he has no movie-star qualms about appearing ugly in front of the camera. Aside from the man himself, the wonderful cast of supporting players includes Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Garrett Dillahunt and Michael K. Williams, some of whom are truly unrecognizable under their makeup and the filth that covers everything in the film.
The Road is meandering and depressing, no arguments there, but so was Cormac McCarthy's book. What father and son will find when the reach the coast they don't know, but can anything really change in a world like this? What matters is a father's love for his son and the lengths he is willing to go to make sure his son lives a life of purpose. The son once mumbles under his breath that he wishes he were dead. Aghast, his father tells the boy he must never say that; there is always hope. Will audiences find the hope in The Road underneath all its grime?
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