At first blush, the premise of The Road -- a father and son trying to survive in a world devastated by nuclear war -- seems oddly out of date. In an era of flu epidemics, climate change and terrorism, nuclear Armageddon is one nightmare scenario that doesn't keep us up at night. But at the heart of this film, based on Cormac McCarthy's searing novel, is a feeling many of us share: Somewhere over the horizon, somebody is readying bombs that, one way or another, can destroy our way of life.
So director John Hillcoat begins his movie, and periodically interrupts it, with lush images of a rural/suburban American idyll. This is the life his characters have lost, the one we fear losing. In contrast to that vanished world, he uses a washed-out palette to depict a washed-up planet, a post-apocalyptic landscape of lifelessness and despair. The End Times, in other words, look like February in Western Pennsylvania. It's that grim. (Not coincidentally, much of the movie was shot here.)
That's the backdrop for The Road's ill-clothed characters and deliberately threadbare plot: A father and son wander southward through the ruins, seeking warmer climes, food and shelter from marauding cannibals.
That's pretty much the whole movie right there. There's no character development -- as in McCarthy's book, neither father nor son even have names. There's no real narrative arc either.
So why watch? Mainly for Viggo Mortensen, who plays the father (and who is most recognizable as Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings trilogy), and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee, the son.
Their moments of father-and-son tenderness -- reading stories by firelight, or sharing a Coke plucked from the ashes -- defy the devastation around them, and are made more poignant by it. Considering how little dialogue they have to work with, they create a remarkably believable chemistry. (My brother, whom I brought to the screening to get a family man's reaction, said it made him want to go home and hug his kids.)
Joe Penhall's script naturally takes some liberties with the book, often for the better. While there's no shortage of horror here, some of McCarthy's most disturbing passages have, wisely, been excised: Scenes that are shocking on paper would be merely gruesome on screen.
And while I've yet to read a McCarthy novel with a well-developed female character, the movie gives us Charlize Theron as Mortensen's wife. Her anguish convincingly voices the film's existential dilemma: What's the point of surviving such a disaster? In contemplating suicide, she tells her husband, "Other families are doing it" -- a going-down-with-the-Joneses assertion that captures the bitterness of a dream betrayed.
Theron exits early, though the boy wears her knit cap after she departs. It is, conspicuously, the only thing in the movie that remains unsoiled, like a woolen nimbus.
That's no accident. McCarthy's book intimates that the boy is a Messiah, here to save a world already lost ... even as his father rails against the God that let it happen. McCarthy spells out this double-edged meditation in the words of a roadside wanderer named Ely (short for Elijah, one of two evangelists said to appear in the Book of Revelation, get it?). "There is no God," Ely explains, "and we are his prophets."
That line is dropped from the film (though Ely remains, played by Robert Duvall). So is most of McCarthy's existential ambivalence. In his book, when father and son find a cache of food, the father confesses "some part of him wished they'd never found this refuge. Some part of him always wished it to be over." In the movie, by contrast, the discovery of food is accompanied by swelling violins.
The film's ending, too, is a shade more optimistic. This is a commercial release, after all, with every incentive to emphasize the heart-warming passages that made the book an Oprah Winfrey favorite. But for bean-counting purposes, Hillcoat probably remained too true to the original: This is a well-done adaptation that probably won't do well at the box office. How many audiences, after all, will watch a 108-minute movie whose first 106 minutes mostly suggest that where there's life, there's hopelessness?
Come to that, McCarthy can be overly fatalistic about humanity's nihilistic urges. In his best-known books, it's often hard to imagine who could have built the world that collapses around his protagonists. In noting the mushroom cloud's silver lining, the film may be selling out. Or buying into a less reductive vision of humanity.