You know the main characters in a movie are seriously screwed when the first words one utters to the other are “It’s OK, it’s just another earthquake.” Considering what the Man and the Boy are up against in John Hillcoat’s haunting adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the Earth shimmying momentarily on its plates is small potatoes.
An unspecified cataclysm has brought an end to life as we know it. Sunshine is a memory. One the Boy is too young to have. The world is gradually dying under a gray-brown cloud; almost everyone’s been killed; crops and animals are a thing of the past; and, one by one, charred, leafless trees thunder to the unsustaining earth. There are still a few people here and there, but they are no longer bound by the covenants of civilization.
So the odyssey the father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) make from the country’s rapidly cooling interior south to the warmth of the coast is as perilous as it is very likely pointless. Gangs of cannibals roam. Desolate homes and shopping places have long ago been picked clean. The Boy knows nothing of how the world used to be, and all the Man knows is “The child is my warrant; and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.” For Mortensen’s character, all of life, all the human struggle has come down to the instinct to keep his son alive.
The two haul their meager possessions in a supermarket cart and carry a pistol that holds two bullets. They might be used to defend against a passerby. They are just as likely to be used to spare the pair from unimaginable suffering at the hands of ghoulish captors. More than once the Man presses the barrel of the gun to the child’s forehead out of love for him in a moment of danger. “Will I be able to do it when the time comes?” he asks himself.
Hollywood loves a juicy end-of-the-world spectacle — 2012, for example — so it’s a testament to just how far in the opposite, more thoughtfully realistic and nightmarish direction the Australian filmmaker went with his interpretation that its distributor took more than a year to work up the nerve to release it. It’s a harrowing meditation on the meaning of human connection.
McCarthy’s prose in The Road is close to poetry of an almost biblical sort, and, with the aid of an evocative score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Hillcoat’s adaptation captures the author’s vision, tone and spirit as faithfully as celluloid can. Images and sound can’t replicate a writer’s cadences, however, and a number of critics have bemoaned the picture’s failure to preserve them. They should buy the audiobook.
For everyone else, there is this most remarkable picture, which at the end of the year offers perhaps the most dead-on projection to date of what the end of the world might entail. I won’t say more. I don’t want to spoil a magnificent minute of it for you. I’ll note only that the Man explains to the Boy that what’s survived of humankind can be divided into the good and the bad. The same can be said of movies, naturally, and this is one of the very good. I didn’t see a better one in 2009.