The Road (2009)

Long day’s journey…

The works of novelist Cormac McCarthy are proving to be something of a gold-mine for modern filmmakers. Back in 2000, actor-turned-director Billy Bob Thornton took on McCarthy’s Western All the Pretty Horses, and in 2007 the Coen Brothers found Oscar glory with their take on his thriller No Country For Old Men. Following in their footsteps is Australian director John Hillcoat, who breathes cinematic life into McCarthy’s unique Armageddon fable, The Road.

It’s a spine-tingling premise, brought expertly and faithfully to the screen by writer Joe Penhall. The world has been ravaged by a cataclysmic event – never named, but all signs point to natural disaster on a fatal scale – which has wiped out most of mankind and left Earth a desolate wasteland. Through this post-Apocalyptic landscape wander a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), heading for the coast in the vague hope that it may prove more hospitable than the frozen north that claimed the life of the boy’s mother (Charlize Theron). They encounter few survivors on their journey, and have reason to be wary of those they do meet as many have resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. Yet despite the lack of food and shelter, and even though they carry the burden of the knowledge that things can never improve, still man and boy walk on, determined to retain their last vestiges of humanity – ‘carrying the fire’ as they call it – against surely insurmountable odds.

As the pair march ever forwards on their search for redemption, so every difficult step of their painful journey echoes through Javier Aguirresarobe’s truly breathtaking cinematography. Compared to Roland Emmerich’s recent blockbuster 20102, The Road may appear – at face value at least – to be a muted, subdued and frankly rather quiet approximation of an Apocalypse. But it’s precisely this that gives it so much power, that the end of the world does not come with a glossy, million-dollar finish but with a slow suffocation of our natural resources is surely a far more terrifying prospect. And this bleak, savage landscape is the perfect setting for the swan-song of humanity to play out, a drama that is – strangely, unexpectedly – as life-affirming as it is tragic.

And that’s also thanks in no small part to the stunning performances that lie at the heard of this story:Smit-McPhee shows remarkable poise and depth as the young boy with, literally, the whole world on his shoulders, struggling under the weight of responsibility his father has placed upon his as his one final ope. Mortensen has never been better, weighing in with a performance that transcends the narrative to become representative of everything that is good about human nature. Even as the world turns to dust around him, Mortensen’s character carries a glimmer of everything we know to be right, keeping the faith even as the darkness approaches. Indeed, this is a path we must all travel, and that ordinary peole can do so with such grace and determination, despite such horrifying circumstances, means that ultimately The Road delivers an overwhelming message of salvation.

5 stars

Stars Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron
Director John Hillcoat
Screenplay Joe Penhall, from the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Certificate 15
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Running Time 1hr 52mins
Opens Out Now

Watch The Road Clips and Trailer

You can read a full and frank interview with The Road director John Hillcoat, writer Joe Penhall and star Viggo Mortensen in Issue 15 of movieScope, out now.

This review was originally published in movieScope magazine