The Road opens Friday in select theaters
Can an otherwise well-made film be so bleak that it ceases to be a good movie?
During the days—even weeks—it takes for the haunting, gripping film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road to slowly seep into its audiences' psyches, it becomes more than incidental to wonder whether misery might be a qualitative factor on which to judge a film's merit, not merely a narrative device whose sole utility for prospective viewers is to help decide if a particular motion picture is their "kind of movie."
The answer rests on whether such gloom and desolation are integral to story's setting and spirit. In the case of McCarthy's 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (published the year after his No Country For Old Men), how else to depict the collapse of civilization and the end of nearly all life on Earth? Apocalyptic pap like 2012 and I Am Legend sell more tickets because people prefer their despair and anguish packaged as neutered, stylized escapism, rather than anything approaching reality. By contrast, to portray The Road's fictional postapocalyptic landscape, The Road's director John Hillcoat shot scenes atop Mount St. Helens in Washington, rundown parts of Pittsburgh and New Orleans neighborhoods ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
The crux of McCarthy's text—and, in turn, Joe Penhall's faithful screenplay, is not explaining or even showing the cataclysmic inferno that destroys nearly all the world's plant and animal life—the closest Hillcoat comes are flashbacks to flickering reflections cast against the horrified faces of our protagonists, who are nameless in book and film: Man (Viggo Mortensen, tremendous) and his Wife (Charlize Theron).
Instead, the story focuses on the survival of the Man and his Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), born postapocalypse, an odyssey that embodies the dual meaning of the film's title. Their arduous journey to the coast in search of food, shelter, safety and possibly other survivors carries them along treacherous highways and other trails teeming with bandits and gangs of cannibals—even a feeble Old Man (Robert Duvall) is a source of potential danger. Seemingly abandoned houses hold the promise of uneaten foodstuff ... or ghoulish cellars stocked with emaciated humans being harvested limb by limb. The Man saves his two remaining bullets so he can quickly kill his son and himself rather than allowing them to be captured and suffer unspeakable horrors.
Moreover, their trek suggests mankind's path to rebirth and redemption. The Wife begged to abort her child rather than bring him into such a hellish world. The Man's drive to survive is not motivated by strict self-preservation but rather both his paternal instinct and the notion that his Boy's life and innocence represent our only hope for a better future.
Where Hillcoat falters is that by delving so deeply—however understandable—into the dark recesses of man's nature, he buries that sense of hope under a mountain of cynicism. He displays a keen command of craft, setting and atmosphere, as he did in his previous film, the similarly austere The Proposition. But both films wait until their closing scenes to offer any reason for enduring optimism (each by virtue of acts performed by characters played by Guy Pearce).
Yet, this is not a reason to totally discount the film's audacious point of view, striking production values and fine cast, particularly Mortensen and Smit-McPhee. Despair is the toll you must pay to travel The Road. Still, it's a trip worth taking.