Cast riveting in ‘The Road’

Viggo Mortensen stars in John Hillcoat's "The Road," based on Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel.
Javier Aguirresarobe/The Weinstein Company/MCT

The Road is a
prophecy of a blasted world. The unchanging sky resembles hammered lead. The
trees are leafless, lifeless, crashing to earth like poleaxed cattle. Animals
have vanished. Cities are rubble fields. Houses are empty.

Humanity has been reduced to survivalist stragglers, some of
whom are amoral, cold-blooded killers. The majority died in the unnamed
apocalypse or by suicide. Desolate freeways stretch nowhere. The end is near.

John Milton described hell as “darkness visible.”
That is the grim, mesmerizing world that director John Hillcoat creates here.
Based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, this is a frontier story where Zane Grey
meets Samuel Beckett. The living envy the dead yet they carry on because they

“Cannibalism is the great fear,” says our
narrator, The Man. Which fear? To fall prey to some Donner Party or to turn
cannibal oneself? Viggo Mortensen is gripping, inhabiting his role with
tamped-down intensity. He conveys a gnawing sense of emptiness and futility
side by side with indomitable courage.

Moving across the corpse of America, he must keep alive
“the fire” of faith and humanity. He must protect his son (Kodi
Smit-McPhee), who is about 8 and has never known another world. He passes along
a slender moral code: Good guys don’t eat people. Just in case, he carries a
gun and two bullets. If not for the boy, you feel, he would have already used
one of them.

The film is spare and pure and serious. It is pitiless and
close to greatness. Every image — brooding hills, musty Victorian furnishings
in a derelict mansion, the dark hellmouth of a highway tunnel — carries weight.
The editing is jagged, flinch-inducing.

Against those constant threats are primal gestures of
paternal love. There are flashes of colorful days when the man had a wife (Charlize
Theron) who played the piano, held his hand, bore him a son. Memory is a refuge
in this harsh world. Hope is an extravagance.

As they walk to the seacoast — things might be better there
— the travelers encounter armed gangs and opportunistic thieves. They also meet
an elderly man (Robert Duvall) who uses his age as protective camouflage. The
Boy wants to keep him. From his father’s example and from somewhere in his
soul, he has learned compassion. He reminds The Man of an earlier, higher level
of human development.

The film is largely a duet between Mortensen and
Smit-McPhee. They are riveting. Mortensen is as gaunt as a concentration camp
prisoner beneath his shabby clothing. McPhee is not so starved; the father
always feeds the son first. As you watch the interplay between these two you
understand why The Man keeps pushing forward. He has not lost the world. It’s
right beside him, stumbling forward, holding his hand.

The Road

4 stars

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Directed by: John Hillcoat

Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language