The Man and The Boy went down the road. Down it in the book as in the film, the film kilning up out of the book and making it visible. Expanse of wreck and slag after the worst has come. Not in words now but pictures. Can you do it? Tell the story that can't be told. Yet tell it you must. The Boy and Man on the road, nameless in the long-dead world. Their cart and tarp and tins of food sole bulwark against the growing cold. Stark tale of human love against the gray scrim of ruin. When the time comes, can you film it?
There are limits to what the human mind and heart can endure, especially when it comes to my Cormac McCarthy impersonation, from which I will now desist. John Hillcoat's The Road (Dimension Films), a largely faithful adaptation of McCarthy's novel, takes place, like the book, almost entirely at those mind/heart limits. It's a horror film that operates at the most primal level, activating that infantile or simian region of our brain that compels us to bond with other human beings, to seek their protection and offer our own. McCarthy is a spelunker of the human psyche, and in The Road he takes the reader in with him and threatens to abandon her in the depths. Because of the extreme nature of its subject matter, Hillcoat's The Road is likewise a shattering experience: You walk out of the theater sweaty and shaking. But does extreme experience equal great art?
The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are the only real characters in this tale of post-apocalyptic survival and father-son love. The people they encounter on their agonizing slog to "the coast"—here, as in many future-dystopic narratives, the imagined site of some possible rescue—are vague shadows, barely people at all. After some unnamed catastrophe, most human life, and all animal and plant life, has been wiped from the face of the earth. Those people who remain have no common bond, no social contract. Roving bands of cannibals hunt down and eat anyone weak enough to become their prey. Here and there, noncannibalistic refugees—the people The Boy calls "the good guys"—can be found wandering through the waste, but it's impossible to tell who is who, so The Man and The Boy trust no one. Occasionally The Man dreams of his prior life: the days before the disaster, when he fell in love with his wife (Charlize Theron, seen only in flashbacks), or the days just after, when she gave birth to their first child in a world newly devoid of hope. But as he warns The Boy, saddening dreams at least prove you're still struggling to survive. It's the good dreams you need to worry about.
"A world newly devoid of hope"—see, it's hard to write about this film without slipping into bleaker-than-thou Cormac-isms. Watching The Boy and The Man wend their way through this awful featureless landscape (shot in deliberately ugly monochrome) is grueling, harrowing, spiritually draining—but the same could be said about watching pigs get slaughtered for two hours.
The Road is an undifferentiated parade of horrors; you watch from between clenched hands, but each new atrocity overwrites the last, like the next room in some cruel funhouse ride. For everything the movie gets right—most notably the impressively pared-down script by Joe Penhall and the two truthful and fearless performances from Mortensen and McPhee—there's a corresponding painful blunder, like the overwrought score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The Australian singer-songwriter is a friend and collaborator of Hillcoat's, and his score does everything that Penhall's austere script doesn't. Instead of countering McCarthy's occasional tendency to excess, the music reinforces it. Situations that we already have the good sense to feel awful about—protecting one's son from marauding flesh-eaters, passing a row of skulls impaled on sticks, coughing blood into the snow—are gooped up with sawing string music. Theron's character, it's established early on, was a pianist; her absence would register as more painful if every scene involving her didn't feature a plinking piano in the background.
Without giving away the ending (oh God, the ending), I can say that The Road is a movie that makes only the most minimal of concessions to its audience's need for redemption. Though the movie takes place in a recognizable movie universe—future dystopia meets zombie thriller, Mad Max without the tricked-out cars—it deliberately withholds the catharsis we expect from genre films. Unless you're far better at walling yourself off from identification than I am, you walk out in a state of untreated shock. Rather than thinking about the movie afterward, you wait for it to wear off.
In a way, despite its unremitting grimness, The Road is a perfect Thanksgiving weekend release. It gives even those who dread seeing their families for holiday dinner something very literal and tangible to be thankful for. Mom's turkey may be dry and her pie crusts leathery, but at least you have something to eat and someone to eat it with, and the menu doesn't include you.
Slate V: The critics on The Road and other new releases