Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in “The Road” (Image courtesy Dimension Films
There are weeks when the movie theaters seem filled with visions of a post-apocalyptic world, the likes of “Zombieland” and “2012.” But few pack the punch of John Hillcoat’s “The Road.”
The blogosphere has been full of questions as to whether he could capture Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of a father and young son’s determined march through a ravaged America. The simple answer is he has done a remarkable job.
The story is set several years after the world has been devastated by earthquake and climate change.
With animal life pretty much wiped out, and farming impossible, the remaining humans are left to scavenge for ever-dwindling supplies of food. Some have turned to cannibalism. This is truly the Hobbesian world, where life is nasty brutish and short.
The unnamed Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) live in constant fear as they push a supermarket trolley loaded with their possessions across the country. They are headed for the ocean, believing that if they get there life will be better.
Yet they are always prepared for the worst. The Man carries a pistol with two bullets, which he has told the Boy are meant first and foremost for taking their own lives should the need arise.
Travelling the road they talk about right and wrong, bolstering each other to survive, and to live as ‘good guys,’ a code which gives them a glimmer of hope in a hopeless world.
Mortensen and Smit-McPhee are both dead-on in their portrayals. Mortensen carries himself with the look of someone who has to dig to the bottom of his soul each day to go on, but will not give up because of his son. On the other hand Smit-McPhee’s open earnestness, which occasionally slips to reveal the youngster still surviving inside is gripping to watch.
“Are we still the good guys?” asks the Boy after they survive a violent confrontation with marauders.
“And always will be, no matter what happens,” replies the Man.
As the story progresses, the important subtleties of their relationship emerge. The Man provides protection and wisdom for the Boy. Yet it is the Boy who provides the pair their real strength, demanding that they live up to their ideals even in the face of bleak reality.
Along the way they meet others who test their humanity. They have to dodge terrifying groups of armed men and women who have crossed the line into murder for food.
Mainly there are just loners scrabbling to get by themselves. Michael K Williams, the fearsome Omar Little of “The Wire” appears as a thief. And there is Eli, an elderly invalid, they pass one day. The Man wants to ignore him, but the Boy insists they share some food.
As they eat the Man asks Eli (Robert Duvall) “Did you ever wish you would die?”
“It is foolish to wish for luxuries in times like these” he replies.
Ultimately “The Road” is about hope, and how little you need to keep going.
It can be argued that Hillcoat’s “The Road” is slightly less bleak than the McCarthy novel, although it is by a very small measure. And opening as it does the day before Thanksgiving it will no doubt make many of us realize just how much we have for which to be grateful.