The end of the world is no fun at all in The Road. The bedraggled survivors of an unidentified cataclysm possess no mohawks, leather outfits or supersonic dune buggies. A nameless father and son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, respectively) spend their days struggling to find food in post-apocalyptic America, and have no time for kingly wish-fulfillment fantasies like, say, playing golf with Faberge eggs.
The Proposition’s John Hillcoat directs and co-writes a scrupulously faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s book, possibly the most downbeat and unlikely Oprah novel ever chosen by the daytime demigoddess. As the Coen brothers demonstrated with their adaptation of McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, the author’s spare prose can translate to eloquently straightforward movie dialogue. “One for you, one for me,” the father tells his son in reference to the two remaining bullets in his revolver, while resisting the urge to take the easy way out. The Road’s picaresque episodes dramatize the father’s attempts to keep his son alive in the bleakest possible surroundings without succumbing to savagery.
When the father withholds charity from an elderly drifter (Robert Duvall) or, later, a would-be thief (“The Wire’s” Michael K. Williams), the son wonders, “Are we still the good guys?” Smit-McPhee looks a bit too contemporary given the son’s life of deprivation, but affectingly serves as the father’s conscience. Mortensen’s soft-spoken performance carries the right measures of defeat and determination, but as much as you empathize with the severity of their predicament, you don’t truly ache for them.
Readers of The Road could imagine America reduced to an Old Testament wasteland, but the movie's landscapes of bare trees and farm soil often merely look like a hard winter. The film’s emotional palette tends to stay as monochromatic as its cinematography, with the constant dangers (including pursuit by cannibals) and occasional triumphs (discovering a bunker with a stocked larder) failing to create significant highs or lows. Even the flashback scenes with the boy's mother (Charlize Theron) emphasize darkness and depression.
The Road leaves you enormously grateful you’re not sifting through the ashes of Western civilization for unopened canned goods. Counterintuitively, that could make it the best film ever released for the Thanksgiving holiday.