So this is how the world ends…not with a whimper (though there is some of that)…not with a bang (though a rather monstrous one is inferred). No, the world ends with rampant cannibalism, human abattoirs, micromanaged Mad Max gangs of aforementioned flesh merchants, and a nuclear winter so bleak and depressing it makes previous post-apocalyptic visions look like luxury cruises. For director John Hillcoat, bringing Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road to the bring screen was clearly a daunting challenge. Indeed, how do you take a story that offers little except horror and dehumanization and turn it into something cinematic? Indeed, part of the problem with Hillcoat's decision is that he takes things too literally. As a result, he crafts an experience so distressing and unpleasant that we just want to curl up in a ball and wait for the inevitable radiation sickness to kill us as well.
We begin at the end of the world. A calm night is shattered by the sound of explosions and the blinding light of what appears to be an atomic blast. Father (Viggo Mortensen) is immediately concerned about the wellbeing of this wife (Charlize Theron) who is currently pregnant. Fast forward a few years and she is sick of living in fear. Civilization has crumbled and angry mobs rule the countryside. She is mostly afraid for her now older son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) a boy completely ignorant of past society and naïve to the dangers all around. Time flashes forward again and Father and Son are on the road, heading toward a nameless Pacific Northwest coast, and hopefully, some kind of salvation. Everyday is a horrific challenge, what with the elements, nagging hunger, and murderous gangs who view their fellow humans as food around every bend. But Father and Son will continue on, certain that there is some light at the end of this miserable and forbidding struggle to survive.
While it wants to portray itself as a vision of hope within a completely hopeless environ, The Road is really nothing more than sullen insult added to undeniably morose injury. It contains one of the best bravura performances in a long time, a look that suggests Hell as covered over by a thick layer of vile volcanic ash, and enough examples of man's inhumanity to man to make sociologists and other scholars of the species cringe. While it is not a bad film - in fact, it often rises to the challenge of greatness before slowly sinking back down - it is not a likable, or even enlightening one. The former facet can be forgiven. No movie about the slow painful death of the Earth's population can be considered "fun". But thanks to Hillcoat's reverence to the source material and his desire to visualize McCarthy's mind's eye Armageddon, we wind up with something so harsh it's almost unbearable.
Again, misery might love company, but it also needs a purpose. Needless suffering is self defined, and yet The Road wallows in it. When Father and Son meet up with a bunch of rogue rednecks, the resulting 'food' fight is enough to turn your stomach. Even worse, the pair comes across a house refitting as a sickening slaughterhouse, the basement populated by people - living and dead - who've been "butchered" for their meat. While many of McCarthy's more gruesome ideas are absent (no babies roasting on an open fire here), we still get the distinct impression of a society sunk to its lowest levels. There is no morality left, no notion of right and wrong. Indeed, the basic need to survive guides everything, even if it means killing someone and feasting on their flesh.
Later, Father and Son come across an old man (Robert Duvall, almost unrecognizable) who is closer to the end than he would like to admit. At this moment, we expect some great pronouncement, to hear the Oscar winner work his magic on making all this pain and torment mean something. Instead, he gets his trophy moment, reconfirms the boy's own philosophy of continued existence ("to carry the fire") and then moves on. Since McCarthy structured the story as a two person Pilgrim's Progress, it's up to Mortensen and newcomer Smit-McPhee to carry the rest of the weight. The artist formerly known as Aragon is definitely up to the challenge. He gives one of the most startling honest and complex turns of his entire career. But his young costar is a failure, a wispy cipher with little substance and a lot of innocent notions about how things should be. As he flits around and whines, we wonder what drives the Father beyond the basic paternal instinct.
But it's Hillcoat who poses the biggest dilemma. Instead of opening up the novel, employing the visual medium of film to bring a bigger scope to the story, he actually finds a way to downsize and personalize it even more. Instead of languishing on the absolute vastness of the devastation (a good example involves Mortensen, his wedding band, and a vast decaying highway overpass), he constantly pulls back. Sure, it's effective when Father and Son are running away from trees that are dying like victims of a forest firing squad, but we never go wide, seeing just how massive said natural disaster truly is. And while it makes sense to stay out of the cities and suburbs, there's little in the backwoods to suggest anything other than a relatively cruel winter. One can easily imagine how a visionary like Steven Spielberg or David Lynch would do with this material. With Hillcoat behind the lens, it's like Kevin Smith managing The Day After.
And still, for all its faults, most of The Road works. We connect with Mortensen and are saddened to see what he has to go through just to make the next mile. We pray that something will step in and save him, wondering what happened to all the best laid plans of governments, the military, and municipalities in case of just such a social breakdown. We cringe at the lack of sound - and the impending terror of sudden noises unexplained. And we do want all of this to mean something, to spend two hours in abject horror at how the world ends without feeling that it was all doom for the sake of nothing but more gloom. At least with a novel, the imagination can make up all kinds of creative counterbalances. For every pain, there's an equal and reciprocal gain. But when adaptations are this strict, there is no room for such flights of fancy. The Road is dragging us straight through Satan's dominion on Earth, and there's no much we can do about - or learn from it.