John Hillcoat, The Road, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 119 minutes. Production still.


THE PERFORMANCES MATCH THE LANDSCAPE: devastated and raw, deliberately unrefined. In The Road, we walk alongside an exhausted father and son as they traverse a gray, vaguely familiar hellscape. The father is prone to emotional outbursts, the young boy is still struggling to comprehend his own emotional capacity; yet together, in the shadows of a world where gangs seek victims who can serve as both prison labor and food, these two final members of a devastated family struggle to maintain a semblance of normalcy. When they come across a full can of Coca-Cola, the father (a scruffy Viggo Mortensen) gives it to the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who self-consciously sips as Dad scans his face. It’s a forced family-album moment—poignant in its artificiality.

Cormac McCarthy’s novel, honored by two incongruous authorities—the Pulitzer Prizes and Oprah Winfrey—is notable for its bleak minimalism. McCarthy asks us to follow the travails of two characters through a hopeless, despairing marathon. Locating the fortitude to brave this nothingness is the point of the story, as a parent tries to shield his offspring from the harsh realities of a nuclear winter, protecting him at night, nursing him through illness, assuring the young one that better times are on the horizon—at “the coast.”

Director John Hillcoat (The Proposition [2005]) has molded a vision that is every bit as bleak and bare as the book’s. Hillcoat resists the quickened dialogic and emotional pace of other Hollywood films and thus remains faithful to McCarthy’s quiet terrors and futile hope. Mortensen and McPhee walk and walk, rummaging for food when they’re not skirting violent gangs. The camera hovers close, and we come to see in their eyes, faces, and bodies what McCarthy was able to describe in his precise prose: an epic vision of parenting, a story that reveals the human need to nurture and protect loved ones. Mortensen carries the emotional load, as an everyman who connects with primal instincts when a stranger threatens to kill his son. McPhee, as the boy, creates a convincing, terrified tween, with a performance so raw and jagged that it might initially read as simply unprofessional; but here his unsteadiness is not a flaw but an attribute. These are two humans out of their element, two actors dwarfed by their surroundings (Chris Kennedy’s production design evinces a compelling no-man’s-land), and this is a family struggling to hold on to something real even after its reality has been obliterated.

The Road opens November 25.

S. James Snyder