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Viggo Mortensen stars in The Road, directed by John Hillcoat.

3 out of 4 stars


The Road

  • Directed by John Hillcoat
  • Written by Joe Penhall
  • Starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee
  • Classification: 14A

Probably it was our fault, man's nuclear folly. Or maybe not, maybe it was some massive cosmic accident. No one cares any more. Apocalypse's cause is never mentioned, because all that matters now is the enduring effect - a frigid world of ashen snow where the sun never shines, where every crop has failed, where cars are rusted hulks and buildings stand empty, where all is withered and no birds sing. Such bleak surroundings are not unique to Cormac McCarthy's novel, but what he does with them is. The Road is essentially a love story, as stripped of sentimentality as the landscape is shorn of green, yet an extraordinary love story nonetheless - powerful and poignant and, even in the midst of hope's imminent extinction, hopeful too.

Directed by John Hillcoat, The Road stars Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee.

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What's more, like No Country for Old Men (and unlike most everything McCarthy has written before), the measured sparseness of the book cries out for a screen adaptation. Director John Hillcoat's answer to that cry is largely faithful to the text and skillfully evocative of the horrific setting. Shot on denuded locations, with minimal recourse to computer-generated effects, the visuals here are chillingly sparse. Almost literally so - we shiver at the sight of a world gone eternally grey. Yet that shiver puts readers, and now the audience, exactly where writer and director want us - warming to the slightest spark of heat, to the faintest prospect of survival.

Yes, there are survivors, among them the Man and the Boy, the latter born 10 years ago on the very eve of destruction and thus blind to even the memory of beauty. But not to the possibility of beauty's resurrection. Says the father of his son: "The child is my warrant, and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke." Everything that follows takes us down the blasted road of that bald prophecy, and all the mounting evidence to the contrary. In this awful new beginning that is the beginning of the end, in a place of rampant amorality and silent devastation, can God be spoken of, let alone speak?

That damning evidence isn't hard to spot. Gangs of cannibals roam the land, hunting the only meat left. From the beams of houses and the limbs of dead trees, the hopeless hang in nooses tied by their own hands - the strange fruit of despair. Wrapped in filthy raiments, our pair of pilgrims pick their way through the detritus - foraging for scraps, fending off the dangers that everywhere lurk, heading south to the sea. When the confrontations turn violent, Hillcoat adroitly ratchets up the suspense; indeed, at times like this, the Man shoots to kill, prompting the Boy to wonder, "Are we still the good guys?"

The answer lies in the abiding love between parent and child, and in the impeccable work of the two principal actors. Stripped down for the role, a gaunt Viggo Mortensen is the thin embodiment of resolve, clinging against all odds to his faith in the future - not his own future but his son's. His unwavering vow echoes every good parent: "I'm trying to prepare you for the day when I'm gone." But here the preparations are as hellish as the environment: How to walk past a starving stranger with his hand held out. How to position a loaded pistol in the roof of your mouth when the cannibals close inescapably in.

Yet the Man learns from the Boy too, and, thanks to a hauntingly muted performance from young Kodi Smit-McPhee, this lesson transcends the others: that the toughness life demands does not preclude the tenderness it needs; that, even in overwhelming darkness, the flame of human decency must, and can, still be carried.

All this is superbly lifted off the page and brought to the screen. Hillcoat's only real departure from the book is his only slight mistake - he dramatizes the Man's dreams of his late wife (Charlize Theron), and these insertions feel more intrusive than enhancing, robbing us of the chance to imagine for ourselves how the lost past must weigh upon him.

The other problem may just be unavoidable. Despite the movie's many virtues, there's still something missing, the ingredient that gave the novel both its gravitas and, at the end, its near-unbearable poignancy. Which is? Simply the rhythm, the texture, the Biblical cadences of McCarthy's prose. Lines like this, plucked from a random page: "The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring."

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The weight of those words cannot be captured on film. With them, Homeric in their heft, The Road is an odyssey. Without them, it's a journey - diligently rendered, bravely performed, often affecting, but still just a journey.

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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