The Road Review

(3.5 STARS)

John Hillcoat’s The Road couldn’t be more different from recent apocalypse films like 2012 and The Book of Eli. It relies on terrific acting and an inescapable sense of hopelessness and dread to tell a story capable of reaffirming one’s faith in humanity. It also does something many thought impossible: Coherently capture the essence of Cormac McCarthy’s visionary novel. Frankly, it’s a difficult sit, but ultimately, The Road is a very rewarding experience.

After an unspecified cataclysm, mankind is on the brink of extinction. Civilization is nonexistent. The remaining population travels through ash-covered streets searching for food, fuel, and shoes while trying to avoid cannibalistic gangs. A Father (Viggo Mortensen) and Son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are two who survived. The Father, haunted by the memories of the Mother (Charlize Theron), who chose to end her life rather than suffer, is terrified any living thing he comes across. He sees all other survivors as a threat to the Son, whom he will do anything to protect. But the Son is less skeptical. He wants to help the “good guys.” But the Father knows he won’t be around forever, and he needs to make sure the Son will be capable of scraping by safely without him.

The distinctions between the Father and Son are stark. Father represents a generation that may or may not have caused the disaster. As such, they should be responsible for rebuilding the planet, but instead, they view self-interest and survival as their primary objectives. Some, like the Father, are responsible for another; Others are not. But this mindset has clearly driven good men to do horrible things.

The Son, on the other hand, represents humanity’s last hope. He sees the good in all people. In one key scene, after a man steals their belongings, the Son still wants to give him a can of food while the Father wishes to rob the man of all he has. It’s a brutal scene, but very demonstrative of the interpersonal dynamics between people in this time of great peril for all.

The acting in The Road is exceptional. Viggo Mortensen again astounds with the lengths to which he will go successfully bring a character to life. Besides being constantly filthy, he’s also rail thin and sports a scraggly beard. It’s a long cry from someone like Tom Stall in A History of Violence, but even more impressive than his physical dedication is his ability to convey seemingly any emotion with little more than a glance or a stare.

Kodi Smit-McPhee shows promise in a difficult role. Too often, characters like this end up being whiny and little more than a sidekick who gets into trouble. Here, he must be strong, but also vulnerable. He relies on the Father for almost everything, but he also carries quite a burden on his own shoulders. He must ensure the two of them stay on the side of the good guys and continue carrying the flame.

Excellent supporting work is provided by Robert Duvall in one scene as a worn-out survivor. His character, Eli, gives us a great deal of insight into some of the biggest questions around the movie. Is it better, as the Father believes, to live no matter how hopeless life might seem? Or is it better to give up, as the Mother believed, and not suffer the hardships of this new world? When asked by the Father if Eli had ever considered just dying, he said he didn’t have time for such luxuries in this world.

Considering the film has been delayed for over a year, as well as the talk that McCarthy’s novel was impossible to film, The Road is a pretty big success. It’s not a movie most audiences will embrace because its tone and look are so bleak. But Hillcoat and company should be proud of their accomplishment. If nothing else, The Road is a moving exercise in what it means to live.

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