For those who found the Coen Brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men too lighthearted, John Hillcoat's relentlessly faithful version of the author's post-apocalyptic Pulitzer-winning novel might hit the spot. Although this Road is actually rather optimistic — at least, compared with, say, Samuel Beckett. Think of it as a sci-fi Waiting for Godot, with cannibalism and family values and the end of the world.
The Road | Directed by John Hillcoat | Written by John Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy | with Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Guy Pearce | Dimension Films | 113 minutes
READ: Interview with John Hillcoat, by Peter Keough
Unlike 2012, however, The Road offers no explanation for its monochromatic götterdämmerung. The film opens with images of better days: sunshine, leaves and blossoms, birdsong and voices. Then lights flash through a window at night, and all that remains is an unnamed father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) living out of a shopping cart equipped with a rear-view mirror that they push through endless vistas of ash, smoke, corpses, and ruin.
What happened? It doesn't matter. This isn't a cautionary tale. Global warming, Mayan prophecies, giant asteroids — pondering the causes and prevention of annihilation offers no relief from the awful circumstances. Which, given the fatalistic, Biblical bent of McCarthy and Hillcoat, might well be a reductive allegory of the human condition. When you come down to it, we're all doomed wanderers in a fallen world. Why perpetuate the folly? At what point does mere survival become meaningless? Is there some innate value or goodness in human nature worth preserving?
In one of The Road's flashbacks — which intrude in the form of nightmares whenever the man sleeps or broods too long — the man's wife (Charlize Theron) says she doesn't want just to survive. The man's only answer to her despair is the son, who was conceived before the world ended. "If he is not the word of God," the man says in voiceover, "God never spoke."
I found the word of God in the book to be a bit of a whiner. Not so in the film: not only does Smit-McPhee convey the child's terror, he also evokes that rarity, genuine decency and moral clarity. There is a stillness beneath the rags, filth, and tears that is stronger than the father's ruthless desperation. When they come across an old man (Robert Duvall) who says he thought the boy was an angel, it doesn't seem like hyperbole.
In this world, or remnant of one, as in Alfonso Cuarón's oddly similar Children of Men, children are a rarity. They are also a delicacy, and the chief threat to our two wayfarers, apart from disease and starvation, comes from the roving bands of survivors whose views about the purpose of reproduction and the taboo against eating human flesh come right out of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal."
Hence the plot gets a little repetitive: danger, flight, repose, and danger again, as the man and the boy progress along the wreck-strewn highway and pass the monotonous panorama of spectacular nothingness to some spurious refuge by the sea. Not unlike the pattern in 2012, come to think of it, though with not-so-high-tech vehicles.