Director John Hillcoat’s powerful and moving adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road, ” takes us on a desperate and often horrifying journey into the depths and despair of a world without civilization, where humans struggle to survive in a devastated post-apocalyptic world. Beginning some years after a terrible and unexplained event has destroyed most plant and animal life on the planet, Hillcoat’s bleak drama follows two survivors, a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they scavenge in a desolate wasteland for any food they can find. We learn through a series of carefully crafted flashbacks that the mother (Charlize Theron) lost all hope in the newly ravaged world and took her own life.
Possessing a fiercely strong will to carry on and protect his son, the father leads his child south in search of a better future. Despite this admirable desire to survive such appalling conditions, it often feels like the road to hell as the two characters try to avoid roving bands of sadistic cannibals without mercy and compassion. The man even carries a pistol with two bullets reserved for their own heads should the odds of survival prove overwhelming in the face of such savagery. On the surface, this is seemingly a colourless landscape abandoned by God, where humanity is on its knees and even the trees have lost the will to live. It is often upsetting to see a young child so painfully exposed to the brutality of Hillcoat’s world, such as the chilling scene when the pair stumble across a family of suicide victims. Yet against this background of such apparent hopelessness lies the true essence of humanity; that of the will to survive whilst retaining dignity and moral substance when it appears not to exist.
It is therefore to his credit that Hillcoat is able to explore the theme of human dignity against brutality and devastation for the sake of survival, without being overly dramatic or clichéd. Whilst not reinventing the genre of apocalyptic films, he does well to steer clear of the well trodden path of recent special effects laden and concave productions such as Roland Emmerich’s “2012” and at times is even able to cross over genres with more grotesque and stylistic horror elements. One such example is a scene almost reminiscent of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” when the two characters find a house where humans are farmed as food for the cannibals. Such moments provide some much needed shock value that help compliment and elevate the more subtle and tender moments of the father son relationship that are often slow but fraught with tension.
Visually, the film’s almost greyish/brown texture compliments the overall bleak and depressing tone of the movie. Although the landscapes are often desolate and dull, they make the film all the more compelling, with the frequent rainfall and muddy paths the two characters walk creating an atmosphere of perpetual death and decay. The weather is cold, the wind biting and bitter, eroding both the physical and mental power of the father as he battles to survive and inspire his son. Interestingly, Hillcoat chose to film on location in areas destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and abandoned areas of Pittsburgh. As the characters wallow in muddy fields and sleep in abandoned cars, one cannot help but sense the heartbreaking parallels between this imagined future and striking images from contemporary events. Yet it is the little rays of hope in “The Road” that resonate so deeply with the human condition. Hillcoat only really provides us with bright colours in his touching flashbacks between the man and his wife as well providing us with tantalising glimpses of beauty such as that of a rainbow and a beetle springing back into life. It reminds us that hope is always there and why the struggle is worthwhile.
Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of the father is a typically intense performance that we have come to expect from him but it is his haunting voice-overs and emaciated appearance that give real depth to the character and put him on a level above many other actors. He is utterly convincing in his love for his son and the need to protect him, whilst at the same time battling his own moral dilemmas. Smit-McPhee’s performance as the boy is also commendable, allowing all the vulnerability and innocence of his character to shine through in his interactions with his father and the strangers they meet. His unwavering commitment to the goodness and positivity in life is offers a pleasant contrast to the bleak tone of the film.
There is no doubt that ‘The Road’ is a dark and depressing film that is often difficult to watch at times and as such may not be accessible to all film fans. Hillcoat has managed to create an unsettling vision of a lawless and apocalyptic world that is largely devoid of morality. Yet it is hard not to be moved by the touching bond that exists between father and son and the tender moments we see in flashback. It is through this and the brief glimpses of hope that sporadically appear in the film that so beautifully deliver its message; the future is in our hands.