Director: John Hillcoat
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron
"Soon all the trees in the world will have fallen... I think it's October, but I can’t be sure. I haven’t kept a calendar for years." The post-apocalyptic world is a grey place. Drowned in decaying ash, it sits in ruins, foraged by the few who survived. Among them are a father (Mortensen) and his boy (Smit-McPhee). They wander the wastelands, over the cracked ground, stepping between dead bodies and abandoned lives. It's a sombre scene, which stops you cold. This is The Road they have to walk.
Cormac McCarthy's creation made for a bleak book. Hard-hitting, harsh and determinedly downbeat, it's a tough story to encounter. Dense, yet sparse, heavy with metaphor; no wonder it won the Pulitzer back in 2007. It was only a matter of time before someone adapted it for the screen.
"The child is my warrant," laments Viggo's voiceover, "and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke." There's a lot of that at the start. The sentimental exposition. It shouldn't really work as a narrative device, but with Viggo's gruff vocals, audibly torn apart by grief and death, it's an affecting opening. Struggling on with his son by his side, they survive against the odds - paranoid of other humans, starving and desperate, the Man won't let the Boy fall prey to the hostile world around them. Born into this life, the Boy knows nothing else; motherless after she (Theron) took her own life, he's only too happy to share his food with anyone they find. They hope to meet the good ones. The ones who don't steal from other people and feed off their flesh. Fighting on in spirit and will, they are "carrying the fire", the father teaches him. They're also carrying a gun. It holds two bullets.
Centring on their paternal bonds, The Road is primarily a two-hander. With such a convincing pair, it pays off handsomely. From discovering tinned pears to lessons in suicide, Viggo and Smit-McPhee are always believable. Thrown against real-life backdrops of destruction (including Katrina-hit Oregon), the unnamed characters captivate constantly; their truthful turns give the harrowing sights even more impact. The few times they do connect with those around them - a Godot-like tramp, played by Robert Duvall - are fleeting, but effective.
Shot in a morbid monochrome, the depressing palette only lifts in the flashbacks, showing us the life that was destroyed by the fire. Glowing off-screen in threatening flickers, we never see the destruction first-hand - John Hillcoat's framing is perfect throughout, unflinching and forceful, yet resolutely enigmatic. Stemming from a superb, subtle screenplay, Joe Penhall's elegant adaptation of McCarthy's prose underwrites every shot. Despite its weighty content, this is a precise and poignant piece of film-making. One that demands to be seen, even if you won't enjoy it.
An intimate portrayal of a world gone to pot, The Road specialises in sorrow and sadness. It's hard to watch. Fantastically so.