This is the journey of a Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) at the end of the world. The Man "carries the fire," and teaches the Boy well throughout their time together, a bonding that thoroughly proves the undying power of love alone. It's what keeps them going and what keeps them alive. The Man is surviving in order to fulfill the obligation he feels he owes to his son. They represent a minority in the world, whether it's after the world's demise or otherwise, and it's this minority who chooses to be righteous against chaos and evil. This ideology is similar to "No Country for Old Men," and rightfully so as that and this film, "The Road," are both adaptations of novels by Cormac McCarthy, this time from his Pulitzer Prize winner from 2007. Like the Coen brothers, director John Hillcoat ("The Proposition") does a fine job at interspersing McCarthy's restrained and beautiful prose into his adaptation. It's what makes this post-apocolyptic movie much more poetic than, say, "2012."
This isn't a disaster sci-fi affair as the actual cause of the world ending is left up to ambiguity. Fires raged, but we don't know why. There are sporadic earthquakes without explanation. Only flashbacks give us any clue to the past and what happened (disease, war, or worse?), and they're shot in sunlight, a stark contrast to the grey, fog-covered world the Man and the Boy drift through in present day. Hillcoat keeps his scenery real and grounded as there are minimal special effects with sparse landscapes of Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Louisiana used to convey an empty, desolate place with abandoned vehicles on the roadside and towns turned to wreckage.
In the flashbacks there is the Man's wife (a reserved and glowing Charlize Theron) who left them when things got too rough. She chose death over a life not worth living, and as McCarthy's words state, "She was gone, and the coldness of it was her final gift." This leaves the Man and the Boy alone in a world of people turned evil, and the film is correct about showing how such circumstances turned modern society to complete savagery. The only thing scarier than knowing you're the only ones left is knowing that any other group you run into is more likely an enemy than a friend. The Man and the Boy come across cannibals who resemble flesh-eating zombies from horror movies, except this time the horror is their reality. A scene inside the basement of an old house will leave you breathless.
The Man and the Boy are traveling with two bullets in a handgun and a shopping cart with sparse amounts of food to a mythical coast that promises a blue expanse of escape. Escape from what is unclear, but the point is that it's a goal, something for which to reach. Along the way, they come across a wandering traveler like themselves. This man is on the verge of collapse and covered in dirt and grime. He can't ask for death because "it's foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these," he says. The man is played effortlessly by Robert Duvall as a man who speaks in only tongue and riddles. These are people who live in a constant state of weariness, alert, and fear.
Viggo Mortensen is unstoppable in the vast roles he has played. From a Russian mobster in "Eastern Promises" to a Middle Earth warrior in "Lord of the Rings," his range is endless. Here is a demanding and affectionate performance from him, and he brings striking realism to a man exhausted to death but not lacking a soul and a heart in the right place toward his son. They are not sympathetic together, but rather, real. A young actor named Kodi Smit-McPhee plays the role of the boy, and he is deeply convincing.
Amidst all the doom and gloom "The Road" provides in ample dosages there is an ending note of optimism and hope that is refreshing and welcoming. In this respect John Hillcoat's film acts as a proclamation of the life-affirming power of the human spirit, but we've also heard that once or twice or too many times before from more memorable movies. This is a good movie, but it doesn't resonate with importance like it wishes. While impressive, it falls just short of being the Oscar-bound masterpiece it originally aspired to be.