THE ROAD, about a father & son’s life & death journey thru an extinction event’s shattered landscape, was first travelled in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, which earned the author a Pulitzer-Prize. Three years after publication, the gripping 2009 film adaptation drew admiring reviews, but was a catastrophe at the box office. End the World with a comet, meteor or zombies, have the explosions, tidal waves and swarms solved, battled and survived by big stars deploying pecs, boobs and firepower, and annihilation-anticipating audiences lap it up. Make it dark, grim, hurtful, and convincingly prescient, and you can hear your popcorn munching echo in the almost empty theater. *
“The clocks stopped at 1:17 There was a long shear of bright light then a series of low concussions I think it’s October but I can’t be sure, I haven’t kept a calendar for years. Each day is more grey than the one before. It is cold. And growing colder as the world slowly dies. No animals have survived and the crops are long gone. Soon all the trees in the world will fall. The roads are peopled by refugees towing carts and gangs carrying weapons looking for fuel and food. Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. There has been cannibalism.. cannibalism is the great fear. Mostly I worry about food. Always food… and the cold… and our shoes. Sometimes I tell the boy old stories of courage and justice, difficult as they are to remember. All I know is the child is my warrant. And if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”
Something—the cause left to our imaginations—has visited apocalypse on the Earth, searing nature and reducing scattered human remnants to desperate foraging. His wife (Charlize Theron) having given up early on, a man (Viggo Mortensen) takes his young boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee, 11) on a forlorn trek to the sea, hoping things will be better, somewhere. Crossing a devastated environment and ruined cities, they face starvation, robbery and assault by individuals, and must evade of armed gangs reduced to cannibalism.
John Hillcoat directed, with Javier Aguirresarobe’s superb cinematography key in creating a harrowing atmosphere of deprivation and dread. Winter weather filming in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Oregon and Washington, Hillcoat (versed in bleak of a different texture, via The Proposition) used locations blighted by urban decay, crumbled infrastructure and natural disaster to stand in for the ruined civilization and blasted ecology of the story. Mortensen and McPhee excel, their tension and terror are palpable, the stray moments of relief and shared happiness an emotional reward for sticking with them on one of the roughest roads in movie memory.
Nick Cave’s mournfully lovely score aches with inestimable loss. Screenplay by Joe Penhall. With brief but telling passes from Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker, Michael Kenneth Williams and Garret Dillahunt. 111 minutes.
* Costing $25,000,000, the worldwide gross only managed $27,640,000, 71% of that outside the States, where the road ended in 148th place. No surprise, in a country where half the population are gleeful about marching, rat-led, over a cliff. Still, with a property as hope-vanquishing as The Road, even if bigger stars like Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise were the lead actor (and had magically skipped their fees), it still likely would have tanked at tills. Bring up “depressing movies” and this one rings the bell with a sledgehammer. Watched anew, more than a decade after its release, in the midst of a ongoing pandemic, ever-increasing firestorms, and political leaders spewing an ever-deepening disconnect from reality, The Road’s raw and haunting highway to hell feels like a torn, tear-streaked map to the day after tomorrow.