The Road is easily the bleakest, most nightmarish movie I’ve seen in a long time, but it’s also the most touching. As readers of the Cormac McCarthy novel know, we are dropped without explanation into a post-apocalyptic world where a Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are struggling to survive. Food is beyond scarce, some have resorted to cannibalism, and the environment is so hostile that it seems unlikely anything will ever grow again. Suicide is considered the ultimate back-up plan, and The Man always carries a pistol with enough bullets to kill himself and The Boy. Indeed there is very little to live for, and yet the instinct preserve one’s humanity (the fire inside) burns on.
Because there is no longer any real structure to life on The Road, the movie is somewhat impressionistic. We simply take what comes, just as The Man and The Boy do, but every scene in the film serves a purpose. We witness the horror of humans being held captive to be butchered and used for food. We watch as desperate people gun one another down. And we hear the inevitable paranoia, fear, and craziness that has begun to set in when strangers cross paths in the desolate landscape and demand, “how long have you been following me?!”
But we also see the unwavering love between The Man and The Boy, moments of pure joy at the discovery of real food, and the simple beauty of being able to shed one’s shopping bag socks and bathe under a waterfall. In this pared down existence, the simplest things take on extraordinary meaning. An evening spent with a kind, lost old man (Robert Duvall) reminds The Man and The Boy of a time when it was possible to have friends, to sit, and share food, and converse. Everything in their lives is temporary, leaving them with only the present.
Through flashbacks we slowly piece together the life The Man once knew. Indeed there was once a Woman too, The Boy’s mother (Charlize Theron), but she preferred death to a life of survival. There is very little dialogue much of the film, but the magnitude of The Man’s loss could not be more palpable. Standing on an abandoned bridge, The Man place his wedding ring on the rail, and gently nudges it right up to the edge. Without saying a single word, it’s perfectly clear why he would want to push it over the side and let it go forever. How could she leave him to face this alone when he loved her so much? How could she have left her son? The life they lead may be no life at all, but at least they have each other.
The film works in large part due to the compelling performances given by the cast. All of the actors (with the minor exception of Charlize Theron) disappear completely into their roles, sometimes to the point of being unrecognizable. It takes a moment to realize that Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce are lurking under layers of filth and emaciation, but this makes the world onscreen all the more believable. It is, however, Viggo Mortensen who carries the movie with his genuine sensitivity and straightforward common sense. He can shed a tear while covering his son’s face with kisses one moment and shoot a man with a flare gun the next without ever hitting a false note. With the equally competent Kodi Smit-McPhee by his side, the movie achieves genuine pathos.
Extra features include Director’s Commentary, Deleted and Extended Scenes, and the featurette, “The Making Of The Road” which contains cast and crew interviews.