The clocks stopped at 1:17 one morning. There was a long shear of bright light, then a series of low concussions. Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road. I think it's October, but I can't be sure. I haven't kept a calender for five years. Each day is more gray than the one before. Each night is darker—beyond darkness. The world gets colder week by week as the world slowly dies. No animals have survived. All the crops are long gone. Someday all the trees in the world will have fallen. The roads are peopled by refugees towing carts and road gangs looking for fuel and food. There has been cannibalism. Cannibalism is the great fear. Mostly I worry about food...always food; food and our shoes. Sometimes I tell the boy old stories of courage and justice—difficult as they are to remember. All I know is the child is my warrant, and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.
- The Man in The Road
A film that haunts long after it ends, The Road marries disparate genres such as the father-son and post-apocalyptic movies with the road picture. However, it does so a little too gently. The film delineates the grotesqueries that follow the apocalypse a little too artfully, allowing what should be a visceral story to slip into a cerebral one.
Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning novel has the advantage of allowing to connect to the central character's interior life, to feel the horror of an apocalyptic aftermath. Viggo Mortensen does the best that he can to put the viewer in the Man's head space as he faces inevitable death in a world where no one is left to take over the role of parent to a young Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Time and again, the Man and the Boy face situations where they can only trust each other: running into a gang of cannibals; discovering a basement dungeon in an old house, its prisoners maimed to supply their limbs as food to the house's residents; encountering a twitchy thief (Michael K. Williams) who steals their dwindling supplies. With each succeeding event, the Man loses a bit of his humanity, intent on surviving even if it means he gives into savagery. More than any of the grisly sights this film offers, its most frightening aspect is the Man's fear that the Boy will end up alone an defenseless when he dies.
But the boy has only ever known this life. Born in the aftermath of whatever destroyed the world, he is an innocent believer in the stories of justice his father has recounted. And it is his optimism that keeps his father on the path of benevolence. Young Smit-McPhee is as fierce as Mortensen, holding his own with the veteran actor in scenes where the Boy defends humanity's virtues just as his father's cynicism starts to prevail over his innate decency.
Unfortunately, the drawback is director John Hillcoat's detached perspective on the story. Hillcoat (The Proposition) endows the film with the appropriate bleakness called for. But the wide-angle point of view taken—no doubt to preserve the metaphorical and mythical stature of the tale—always keeps the viewer at a safe distance. The result is that one is never allowed to fully identify with the Man's moral dilemma and how it impacts his approach to the survival of his son.
Ironically, The Road's strongest moments are the ones that deviate in the book, flashbacks where the viewer learns what became of the Man's wife (Charlize Theron). In one memorable scene, a pregnant Theron conveys the horror of their post-apocalyptic existence when she begins to go into labor. She realizes this is no world to bring her son into, and one can actually see the moment in which her character's last spark of hope is completely extinguished. Theron's defeated Wife is a presence that hangs over the film long after her last scene, a constant reminder of the humanity and optimism that the Man has lost.
If the reader senses conflicted feelings from this writer, he or she is correct. The Road touched the father in this writer, spurring thoughts of its inherent metaphorical message. This father has thought of how his sons' lives might change every time he gets on a flight and frets about the chances it might not land safely. But The Road never transcends its "what if?" quality, never gets the viewer involved enough to feel the true terror of living in a dying world, and how it would fuel any parent's apprehension about abandoning their children to a dark fate.