The road is long, with many a winding turn. Two statements that can’t readily be applied to this, the movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s celebrated novel, for clocking in at just over 110 minutes it's relatively short, and with nary a plot twist, or indeed a plot in sight, isn't terribly windy either, this Road is in fact a beautiful but flawed apocalypse movie. The apocalypse itself is almost incidental to McCarthy's novel, an exploration of humanity at its very end, following the travelling father/son duo on their wacky adventure across a decimated North America, and documenting their jolly encounters with travelling salesmen, entertainers and cannibals, and the film is no different. So no different in fact that you may emerge blinking into the colourful real world thankful that it is still there and just as colourful as you remembered, or perhaps, despite the excellent work by everyone involved, just thankful that the movie is over.
It was never going to be easy, bringing this one to the silver screen. McCarthy’s America is one where nothing grows, no birds sing, no squirrels gather nuts and the sun never, ever shines. The causal event of such devastation is only hinted at, here by subtle flashback – a nuclear war? A tumultuous natural disaster? Who knows. What is clear is that the world is dead. No animal save for man walks upon the earth, and humanity is its death throes. Those that remain some ten years after the event survive as they must in the brutal ash covered landscape. And it is here that our protagonists known only as the man (Viggo Mortensen) and the boy (newcomer Kodi Smit-Mcphee), travel south in search of, anything. Along the way they scavenge and survive, and occasionally run into other survivors – typically tense affairs when the majority of strangers want to eat your legs – and that is literally the entirety of the plot.
What the book, and to a less successful extent the film, try to gauge, is the capacity of man for good and evil. The man and boy are the self professed “good guys” – who would never eat another person no matter how hungry they were – but of course each encounter with another party, a punctuation in the monotonous silent crawl south, explores how good the man really is, and what lessons he is passing onto his son. An early encounter with a rather mad-max-esque hick ends abruptly with a bullet to the head in the name of protecting the boy – fair enough you might say, but later run-ins see a harsh punishment doled out to a would be thief (watch out for an overly-chubby-for-the-role Michael Kenneth Williams Omar fans!) and the man’s fury tempered by the merciful son – has he learned good lessons? I don’t know, I’d say he wouldn't last five minutes with such a trusting nature, honestly has he learned nothing?? But then that's the point, the morality on display in extraordinary circumstances; we’ll all come away with a different take on how we might believe ourselves to behave in such a position.
But the trouble is, the book is good for such reflection, for such melancholy daydreaming, but the film is something else. A book you can put down, or look up from and surround yourself with the warmth of reality. Here we are locked in the barren grey silence of it all for the duration. And this would be no bad thing, if it weren’t so slavishly tied to the book's content. Of course it never really had a choice in the matter – fans of the novel would be liable to self immolation if an additional sentence of spoken dialogue or scene with a shopping mall were added, so it can’t be held at fault for it, but the fact remains this is a very slender narrative. As the pair make their way south, the man’s health gradually declines, and the ultimate question of what will happen to our offspring we leave behind us raises it’s ever present ugly head. It is an interesting conundrum, and makes for some genuinely tense moments during some particularly grisly encounters with the logical conclusion of life at the end of days, but can’t sustain itself into what we might consider a cinematic plot.
It falls then to the acting, and fortunately, this is where The Road triumphs. Viggo is, as ever, hypnotically great. Appearing half dead for half of the film, he brings a natural sensitivity to the role of the doting father, carefully tutoring the boy in methods of survival, while simultaneously marvelling at how little he understands, born as he was at the start of the “event”, about the world before the devastation. “You think I’m from a different world don’t you?” he croaks at one point, as indeed he is. He treads the finest of lines throughout the film between morality and brutality, motivated to good and bad only by his boy, his emotional and physical decline throughout is both touching and painful to watch. The boy meanwhile is also excellent, although the “look Papa!” wore thin after about five minutes. Supporting cast members, thin on the ground as they are, are all very well played, especially a brilliant turn from an almost unrecognisable Robert Duval as the old man, and a buck toothed cameo from Hilcoat favourite, Guy Pearce.
Speaking of which, The Road is a difficult proposition to quantify. While being on the one hand superbly made, diligently shot and impeccably acted it is simultaneously grey, flat, depressing and dare I say it, a little boring. Obviously one does not expect action adventure from such a movie, yet there is so little life in the lens that it fails to excite on a fundamental level. The barren stills of There will be Blood never failed to capture the imagination, no matter how little was happening in the frame, same for other “quiet” movies like Walkabout or Flash Gordon. But the Road is as drained of passion as the picture is of colour – it feels as tired as it’s ailing protagonists, who while excellent in themselves never really feel connected. That sense of disconnection may well be deliberate, but it only serves to undermine our relation to the characters. The clipped, dry dialogue of the book is retained here, and off the page feels cold and distant. Do I really give a monkeys if these two don’t make it through the relentless bleakness? Why delay the inevitable? Of course, this again is a central tenet of the story, as is nicely illustrated by Charlize Theron’s rather harrumphy exit from their lives some years earlier, did she have the right idea in saving herself all this greyness?
Despite all the ambiguity, I would recommend the Road to those of a reflective and melancholy nature as it does provide a morbidly-emotionally gruelling couple of hours. To those of you of an excessively exuberant and effervescent disposition, you should probably see it too as you’re pissing us all off with your relentlessly cheerful attitude. I wouldn’t recommend it to you however if you’re expecting Mad Max or Dennis Hopper with an eyepatch, there are no gyrocopters here. What is here is a thoughtful and tender meditation on life and death, in a realistically stylised vision of the end of days. An essayist's study of what it means to be human, and after everything has passed, what it means to be a good human, all told through a brown lens with the odd cannibal thrown in for good measure.
The Road is released in the UK on 8th January
Armageddon outta here