The images that open The Road feature a leaf-lined branch warmed by the sun. Somewhere nearby stands a beautiful mother-to-be. Observing her is a handsome man stroking a horse. These fragments of a becalmed pastoral paradise are fleeting, vanishing as that same man wakes from his memory-laden dream. A handful of years have passed, perhaps seven, judging from the age of the boy who accompanies him, but the man appears to have aged decades, his face lined with grime-streaked gutters, his teeth half-rotted. Still, his transformation is nothing compared to that of the world he inhabits. The topography resembles a five-day beard on a wretched old man. Fires line the horizon, the sky’s an endless gloaming, and the colour green has forsaken us. Food is scarce, earthquakes are frequent, and what’s left of mankind has largely been reduced to foraging ghouls. At least there are still books. The man reads one to the boy. It catalogues animals, each of which is now presumed extinct.
The man (Viggo Mortensen) and boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are making their way south, on foot, in beat-to-shit puffy coats, with dwindling supplies and a revolver with two bullets left, just enough to ensure double-suicide should some horrendous murder suddenly become a certainty. Those aching memories of fecund nature and familial blossoming are the last vestiges of warmth and beauty available to them, though the dying landscapes they pass through possess an undeniable fascination, at least for those of us just visiting for a couple of hours. The most commonplace items become miraculous here: shampoo, Coke, toothpaste, a can of pears. Their magic is intensified by the boy’s first-ever discovery of their comforts—he was born into this. The preservation of his innocence is all the man lives for, his answer to the question of why go on. His wife opted for suicide, along with most people with sense or dignity.
The book is from Cormac McCarthy, author of All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian and No Country For Old Men. Like No Country, The Road is a kind of western, the man with no name charged with chaperoning the boy through lawless terrain, their destination being the Gulf Coast and its vague promise of less hostile conditions for homesteading. Like the Coen Brothers’ film of No Country, The Road, scripted by Joe Penhall, is an unusually faithful literary adaptation, and director John Hillcoat, who last helmed The Proposition, easily one of the best westerns of the decade, offers a realization of McCarthy’s post-apocalypse that’s richly detailed, surprisingly suspenseful, and hauntingly vivid. A notable difference between the films of No Country and The Road however is that where the Coens nurtured atmosphere with an uncharacteristic paucity of scoring and voice-over, Hillcoat’s enlisted his old friends Nick Cave and Warren Ellis to supply the scoring, which is gorgeously mournful, so evocative as to be a sort of adaptation in itself. The problem being that there’s so much of it. Along with Mortensen’s weary voice-over—the pairing of disembodied voice and music recalls the films of Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line in particular—the hypnotic score lulls us during scenes where we should ideally be alert to the tiniest, most nuanced sound, gesture, and image. It’s hardly the worst problem for a movie to have—an abundance of something beautiful and well crafted—but it does finally swath everything in a single tone, unintentionally protecting us from some harrowing moments.
Yet his central reservation of mine felt less important upon my second viewing of The Road, which allowed me to better forget the source material and focus more on the tremendous emotional connection between the brilliantly-cast Mortensen and the very natural, wide-eyed Smit-McPhee. During the second half I realized how, beneath the unfathomably bleak milieu, The Road is finally a story about father and son, about what a parent lives for and what a child tries to retain as he carries on alone. The accumulation of moments of desperate searching and running, of laughter and play—rare, but memorable—and of mutual learning about how to negotiate with the unruly world becomes resonant, and unforgettably moving. So see The Road, and then, perhaps, see it again. There’s something precious amidst all that darkness.