Like most post-apocalyptic tales, The Road isn’t exactly sunny. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the story follows a father (Viggo Mortensen) and a son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they journey across a decimated world in search of food, shelter, and safety from bands of roving cannibals.
Okay, so it’s not a date movie.
This is really a two-character story. Other than the cannibals and occasional straggler the pair encounter, the only other person given screentime is Charlize Theron as Mortensen’s wife (though she is only shown in flashbacks).
This means the weight of the film falls on Mortensen and young Smit-McPhee. Thankfully they’re up to the task. Mortensen is as good as always, and Smit-McPhee holds his own against the Oscar-nominated actor.
Although I prefer his last film (The Proposition), director John Hillcoat makes some hard choices here, most of which pay off. The how and why of the apocalypse is never explained. What happened isn’t important. The film isn’t about people surviving a disaster but about trying to continue to live afterwards.
There are harsh truths inherent in the film about how far a man will go to protect himself and his son, and how fragile civilization is and how quickly it could fall into anarchy. I did expect to see more people, or at least more bodies, instead of the overwhelming emptiness which pervades the film. Oh, and there are cannibals. Lots of cannibals. In balance these darker themes, the film also includes some preachy quasi-religious and philosophical narration about life (which only really work about half the time).
I was also a bit disappointed in the ending, which I understand is true to the novel but I felt was the safest (and least interesting) choice made during the film’s two-hour running time. Given the circumstances, the characters encounter there are only three possible outcomes. 1) Realistic: things end badly, 2) Happy: Things are gong to be okay, or 3) Hedging Your Bets (Melancholy but Hopeful): Things are bad but might be getting better.
Through two-hours of stumbling through a broken world filled with cannibals, dust, and little else, in which the audience has invested in these characters, I think it’s a cop-out not to see it through. The film earns the harsh realistic ending that’s all too easy to see coming. Sadly, it’s not what we’re given. Good films often give the audience an out, a reasonably happy ending (whether its earned or not) which wraps up everything in a nice package with a bow on top. Great films aren’t afraid to leave the audience sad, angry, upset, or questioning. This is the former.
The Road is a fair bit better than other recent post-apocalyptic films such as I Am Legend or Blindness. Even though I find in wanting, it’s still an easy recommendation to make. If you enjoy stark drama, and the cannibals don’t scare you off, you should give it a try.