There is a slow build throughout the postapocalyptic tale “The Road” — actually more of a slow burn. The end is devastating, but it also comes with a hint of promise, that good will prevail in times of overwhelming peril.
It’s certainly a haunting film, and numbingly bleak. But it’s given gravity and humanity by courageous performances that keep us bound to the characters, knee-deep with them in their fight for survival.
Based on the Pulitzer Prizewinning novel by Cormac McCarthy, this film version sticks pretty closely to its source material. It certainly matches its grim tone.
Director John Hillcoat and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe also match the book’s poetically dreadful sense of place — the film’s gray, burnt devastation is daunting yet beautiful.
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We follow a nameless man (the riveting Viggo Mortensen) as he and his young son (the astonishing Kodi Smit-McPhee) make their way across a landscape littered with human carcasses, burnt cars and debris.
We learn through flashbacks how they’ve gotten to this point from much happier times.
Those times are recalled in colors other than gray, as the man fondly remembers his wife (Charlize Theron) before an unnamed event caused almost complete annihilation.
No animals survived. No crops. Only a few humans, and most of those have become cannibals, hunting the barren landscape in marauding gangs.
One of those gangs invades as the man and his son are sleeping. And we soon learn the lengths the man will go to protect his child.
We learn through other flashbacks that the wife was not emotionally equipped to deal with the harrowing existence that awaited them. Left alone, the man and boy begin a journey south to the ocean, knowing they surely could not survive another winter where they lived.
So we travel with them as they encounter moments both happy (a bunker filled with food) and horrifying (a cellar full of naked victims awaiting their demise).
The film certainly will be too dour and depressing for some. And others will find its pace too slow.
But what commands our attention and keeps us emotionally involved is Mortensen’s stout performance. We feel every bit his weariness, but also his sense of duty — his fight to stay optimistic for the sake of his child.
There are touching moments when the father shows the boy vestiges of what used to be (a can of Coca-Cola), and as they brace for a future that doesn’t seem to wane in its severity.
It all makes for an emotional wallop at the end. But for all its doom, “The Road” somehow manages to hint at an inkling of promise.
It’s a tone poem on humanity at its most fearsome — and fearless.