By the very nature of the story and its source material, a certain grimness hovers over The Road-“certain” both in the sense of particular grimness and a sure grimness. We would expect no less from any screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s stunning post-apocalyptic novel, set after some unspecified world-ending event. But on the warm (if not the bright) side, the all-important aspect of McCarthy’s parable-like story deals with the fierce and binding love between a father and son-unnamed in the story, like many circumstances in the novel-moving warily in a world of days “more gray each one than what had gone before.”
On this literally and metaphorically bleak landscape, humanity has grown dogged and sometimes cannibalistic, and the father-son team slinks from tragic scenarios to moments of optimism and tenderness, locked onto some moral compass. “We are the good guys,” says the man to his boy. “We’re carrying the fire.” They are vaguely on “the road” to survival and a presumably better life in the unnamed south, but bearings are intentionally ambiguous in this world after the world we think we know.
Australian director John Hillcoat’s brave and respectfully faithful adaptation makes for a powerful filmic version of the novel, and he has considerable help from the muted strengths of lead actors Viggo Mortensen and the unreasonably good and subtle child actor Kodi Smit-McPhee (also an Australian, and one to watch for). Other actors of note, including Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall, drift in and out and leave important grace notes in the margins of the father-son story. But another prominent player is the scenery itself, in such fitting locations as post-Katrina New Orleans and Mount St. Helens, and shot with a rapt ruefulness by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. Something is askew in the music department though, and the moody musings by Nick Cave (with whom Hillcoat has worked before) sound like a watery, poor man’s Arvo P¤rt. Real P¤rt might have better suited the landscape, where emotional solidarity glows beneath the gray and volatile surfaces.
Hillcoat’s The Road faces some imposing competition, not only in terms of recreating the highly stylized and literate novel itself-with its hypnotic rhythms and its memorably and minimally etched imagery-but also living up to the legacy of McCarthy adaptations before it. Compared to the Coen brothers’ masterpiece No Country for Old Men and Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses, The Road doesn’t rise to the mastery of the former, but certainly outshines the latter. Where The Road especially shines is its quality compared to the standard brand of the post-apocalyptic genre. This film is a poem compared to the cartoonish buffoonery of 2012, and thus more affecting and less easy to shrug off as “only a movie.”
More to the point, The Road leaves a deep and lasting impression partly because it so artfully exposes the post-apocalyptic as the misnomer that it is. Rather than dealing with a world after humanity has rubbed itself out, abiding by the rules of the biblical apocalypse, this is a tale of the terror and glimmers of hope in a desperate residual humanity beyond the brink, but with some survivors heading south and “carrying the fire.”