Just one of the many films released a few months before the awards season, John Hillcoat's The Road is one of the best of the bunch, a harrowing and often depressing film featuring superb performances from the adult and child leads. It was always going to be a difficult task for anyone to adapt Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel but Hillcoat has somehow managed it with apparent ease.
The Road takes place after some sort of unexplained worldwide disaster has struck, leaving what appears to be the majority of the world's population wiped out and those who are left just roam the streets, some just looking to survive while others (such as gangs) look to attack and even eat other survivors. We follow a man and his son as they walk "the road" to try and survive.
Describing the plot of The Road to someone who hasn't seen it may come off as boring. Basically we just follow one man and one boy as they walk for almost two hours. But it's in the performances, the relationship between the man and his son and the tone that Hillcoat manages to achieve, amongst many others things, that makes the film as worthwhile as it is. It's never a cheery film, with a sort of grey, washed out look to it that never makes it what you would call "entertaining" in the popcorn movie sense. But like most Oscar-type movies (I would be surprised if it didn't rack up a number of nominations), that's not what it should be. The story is downbeat and bleak and thus the movie should reflect that.
Having said that, at the same time as it being bleak and depressing, it also manages to convey a sense of hope, even if only in its most naive form. We actually care about these two characters (whom we don't even know by name — they're just referred to in the credits as "Man" and "Boy"), care about what happens to them not only in the general sense of their well-being, but also care about the relationship between the two of them. By film's end it manages to be as sad as it is uplifting. And it's a testament to Hillcoat – who directed the magnificent The Proposition – that he manages to strike such a delicate balance.
The performances are always going to be important in a movie like this where we only really have two characters to follow. But Viggo Mortensen and newcomer Kodi-Smit McPhee are simply fantastic as the Man and the Boy, respectively. If I didn't know any better I would think that these two were actually real father and son because the connection they're able to put on screen is absolutely uncanny. And when I say that both Mortensen and McPhee are fantastic, I mean exactly that. It's not as if the adult actor carries the child actor in terms of the performance and the connection conveyed between the characters, but McPhee really holds his own and is equally as good as his on screen father. He will next be seen in the American remake of Let The Right One In, and I believe he's one of those child actors to look out for in the future.
Along the two lead characters' journey we have a few faces that come in and out of the picture, perhaps in some ways to give us other people to look at. We have an almost unrecognisable Robert Duvall as an old man the father and son meet along their journey, someone who the son convinces the father to help, although he does so reluctantly. This is an example of how the supposedly more naive son actually teaches his father something — that not everyone is bad, even in such a ravaged, post-apocalyptic world as this. We also have the Woman (played by Charlize Theron), who is wife to the Man and mother to the Boy. We only see her in flashback mode and in total her screen time doesn't amount to much but when she's on screen she's in her usual top form. Other faces we see along the way are Garret Dillahunt, Michael K. Williams, and Guy Pearce, who all, although their screen time is extremely limited, provided great support for the two leads.
One of the things I love most about The Road is the fact that it never goes into what caused this post-apocalyptic world. It's hinted at in the opening scene where Mortensen gets up from bed and looks out the window to what can be guessed is some sort of huge fire (we only see Mortensen's face and not the view he's seeing through the window). But we never actually find out what's happened and admittedly that may frustrate some viewers. But I personally thought it helped solidify the fact that this isn't about why what's happened has happened but about the result of it and how our two lead characters deal with it. It makes it all the more powerful.
So The Road may not be the most enjoyable of watches, and at times it's even downright tough to sit through (the pace isn't exactly what you would call "breezy"). But if that's not an issue for you then it's one hell of an affecting and powerful movie to experience. Carried by two fantastic lead performances and set to a haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (who also scored Hillcoat's The Proposition), The Road is not to be missed.