Based on Cormac McCarthy's award-winning novel, The Road offers a non-stylized look at a post-apocalyptic future through the eyes of a father and son struggling to survive. With less straightforward narrative than McCarthy's last successful film adaptation, No Country for Old Men, The Road is something of a tone poem, tracing the relationship between father and son as they journey through a lifeless wasteland toward an ocean which may, or may not, hold some hope of salvation.
It's the kind of simple - almost too-simple - tale that demands a strong emotional bond between the two main characters if it's to have any hope of succeeding, and to the film's credit, actor Viggo Mortensen and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee play remarkably well off one another. There's a palpable feeling of desperation to Mortensen's performance and one can feel the constant drive to press forward into an uncertain future with only the vaguest of prayers that he might be able to carve out some better life for the boy. There's a feeling of uselessness that hangs around the father's neck. He keeps an emotional distance from his son, certain that he's not much longer to live and determined to toughen up the boy to live in this new and violent world. Alternately, one can clearly see the affection and sizable admiration that the boy holds for his father, pleading for a love that becomes lost in a father's duty to arm his child against a world without rules or moral boundaries.
And in a strange way, the film's remarkably striking visuals are both its greatest achievement and most noteworthy flaw. Desolate, burned-out forests and ash-covered, half-crumbled cities give the film a horrifically beautiful palette, leaving little doubt that this a dead world with no hope of shelter or rebirth. There's never a clear explanation for exactly what happened, which works well enough. But the heavy, dark and oppressive feeling that the landscape lends to the film ultimately clouds its central relationship. The film is so emotionally and visually bleak - not to mention relatively without dialogue - that it becomes difficult to truly care about the outcome, try as one might. There's a sequence where the broken family finds some measure of safety and supplies in an old fall-out shelter that hints at the happiness they once had - or might, perhaps impossibly, have - but it's too little to hammer home our complete engagement with the only two constant characters in the film.
There's a parade of cameos here, however, that manage to keep things at least partly interesting amongst the long, silent walks. Audiences will see Garret Dillahunt as a member of a gang of roving cannibals; Charlize Theron as Mortensen's former wife; The Wire's Michael K. Williams as a reluctant thief and an Oscar-grabbing Robert Duvall as an old, nearly blind traveler. Each of these moments serve not only to punctuate the film in terms of things happening but also to test the remaining humanity of the father as his efforts to protect his son push further and further away from his own abandoned morality. And that's really the crux of the film - loving your son for his innocence, yet knowing that you have to break him of it to survive.
Overall, the performances are first-rate in their very quiet, restrained manner, but the too-solem, graveyard mood created by director John Hillcoat - which is utterly appropriate given the source material - simply fails to engage the audience in any emotionally meaningful way. What was fully communicated in McCarthy's sparse, yet poetic prose only appears here visually, never connecting on the deeper level so masterfully documented in the novel. Mortensen and Smit-McPhee do the best with what they're given, and Hillcoat presents the material as well as one imagines he possibly could, but The Road may just be a good example of a novel that loses too much in the adaptation. Certainly, the book is better, and for those who are curious, we would suggest heading to Barnes and Nobel before taking a trip to the local theater. It's worth seeing, but only as a supplement to the material; not in place of it.