It sure is bleak, which isn’t to say that director John Hillcoat’s post-apocalyptic road movie (adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s book) isn’t technically brilliant or outstandingly well acted. But ‘The Road’ is so nihilistic, so full of pessimism and dread, with no humour whatsoever, you can’t really call it entertaining or a film you can recommend for a good night out. This isn’t a problem though, because you can’t fault it on its artistic merits – from the washed out colour palette, giving further depth to the lifeless Earth, through to the Hollywood-unfriendly storyline, Joe Penhall’s script is true to itself from start to finish, and even the apparent product placements are true to the book (Coca Cola in particular had initially resisted its inclusion). Viggo Mortensen stars as an unnamed man, guiding his son Kodi Smit-McPhee through a desolate, dead America, with no plant or animal life, and with other humans reduced to violence and cannibalism in order to survive. Facing starvation or a violent death they head to the coast, hoping for something better, using one another to hold on to their sense of morality along the way.
And although the pair have no hope and little chance, they continue to fight for their survival on a planet no longer able to support life, Mortensen holding on to his responsibilities as a father, and Smit-McPhee intuitively believing in the value of being ‘a good guy’. It’s a fascinating character study of morality and fatherhood, in the face of utter hopelessness. And both actors are more than up to the task – Mortensen provides a tower of strength under unthinkable pressure, and Smit-McPhee gives a compelling depiction of hope, compassion and optimism, while the rest of his race descends into savagery. Penhall’s script has them relying on one another to hold on to what they believe in, both supporting and pushing when humanity has given up entirely, and it effectively draws you in. Could the tone have lightened up on occasion? Sure, but Hillcoat admirably never loses his focus from his pair, nor do we lose our compassion for them.
There is some genuinely shocking and mostly underplayed horror, and the stark, mostly on-location visuals add to the feeling of constant dread. The attention to detail of the dead Earth is simultaneously impressive and depressing, and although we never find out what brought about The End of the World, we don’t need to. This is all about Father and Son, showing goodness can prevail under any circumstance. More of a technical achievement than a ‘must see’, ‘The Road’ is nonetheless an impressive film and worthy of your time – just pick the right one.