The long and winding road leads… well, I don’t know where. In The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s recent short novel, it seemingly leads to hell.
McCarthy’s writing is also the basis for the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men; his latest work is more like “No Old Men in the Country,” with most of the weak and infirm having perished after an undefined apocalypse. There’s a shared bleakness in both stories, a belief that evil exists in the world, and it is on the verge of invading your life.
The novel and film focus on the journey of two unnamed characters. The Man (Viggo Mortensen) has one charge in his life: his son. The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has seen more than any child should, being raised in a world where the sky is grey, the ground is covered in ash, marauders roam the countryside raping and killing, and food is about as scarce as hope. Together the two struggle for the most basic necessities: warmth, shelter and nutrition.
Sometimes the abandoned stores and houses they enter hold unexpected treasures, like an old can of Coke. Other times they hold the bodies of people who gave up and ended their struggles, either hanging in the rafters or in their own beds. But the two keep trudging forward in their quest to find something. Maybe it’s hope, maybe it’s a patch of blue sky, maybe it’s death. The road is traveled, but the destination is unknown. It’s a perverse twist on the adage, ”It’s not the destination that matters, but rather the journey.”
Mortensen and Smit-McPhee are the movie’s heart and soul. Mortensen was able to work the dirty, grungy look in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Aragorn is a clean-cut, preppy dream compared to this grime-caked traveler. Frighteningly skinny with protruding ribs and skeletal arms, Mortensen certainly looks the part of a starving, desperate man. Whether he fully acts the part is a different question. Where he falters is his relationship with Smit-McPhee. Mortensen does protection well, but he doesn’t ever master the familial bond to convincingly play a father. If not for the flashbacks, it might be feasible to believe that the two are not blood relations, but rather just an elder and a dependant.
Smit-McPhee is a newcomer tackling a huge role. He stumbles with the truly emotional extremes, but those are rare moments that stick out because they are the exception.
In minor roles are Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce and Charlize Theron, though the Duval and Pearce are so heavily laden with makeup that it’s nearly impossible to recognize them. Theron, meanwhile, is about the only thing of beauty in the film. Playing Woman, she appears in the flashbacks that explain – barely – why the two guys are on the road. Her performance is arguably the strongest of the film, and one of the briefest.
So what’s really going on in The Road? Director John Hillcoat has created a future that is dismal and depressing, with the question ”Why bother living?” overlaying almost every moment. Struggling to survive means tempting a fate of rape, being cannibalized, or a slow painful death by starvation. Perhaps the meaning of the film can be found in a conversation between Man and Duvall’s Old Man. They discuss religion and whether they are cursed. Has man destroyed Earth, now damned to live on a barren planet either cursed or forgotten?
There’s a strong morality at the heart of The Road, so much so that it’s also being marketed to evangelical Christians. In a world without order, the Man is teaching his son how to survive without losing his soul. But it’s up to the Boy to teach his father how to live again. One grows as the other regresses, and ultimately it’s clear that mankind’s fate may rest in the ability of children to keep the fire of humanity burning.
There’s never enough action in the film for it to be thoroughly enjoyed without some analysis and debate, otherwise it’s just two depressing hours about a lost father and son. Moments of horror and suspense alleviate some of the slow pacing, but at times the audience is just trudging along with the travelers.
Thankfully Joe Penhall’s script and McCarthy’s original story provide plenty to consume with miles of latitude for interpretation. This road may lead you down a different path than others, but remember it’s about the journey, not the destination.