Director John Hillcoat likes dirt. His gritty western The Proposition and The Ghost of the Civil Dead, a dark and macabre look at brutal violence in Australian prisons, both feature flies buzzing around people's heads. Hillcoat has tackled all of his movies with collaborator Nick Cave either writing the script and/or scoring the film's music and now they undertake another dismal worldview in The Road, Cormack McCarthy's (No Country for Old Men) desperately bleak saga of the last men (and women) on earth.
The Road tells the tale of a father and son (anonymously referred to as man and boy) as they journey through barren wastelands in a painful and seemingly futile attempt to survive. The planet has pretty much been destroyed and the few remaining people roam the post-apocalyptic landscape in search of food. With the earth literally caving in on itself and food virtually depleted, cannibalism, theft and murder reign supreme. The catastrophe is set up through the man's (Viggo Mortensen) poetically stark narration. We don't need any huge explanation - we just need to accept (like the characters) that this has happened. How the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and man begin their doomsday trek is told via flashbacks, recounting life with the woman (Charlize Theron) and her departure when she refuses to continue on. Father and son then travel south with a gun and two bullets saved for a suicide pact as a last resort.
Mortensen is a chameleon actor. Here he's weathered and wears a hideous snarl, but underneath lives an emotionally scarred, deeply caring, tortured soul. Robert Duvall proves he can steal any scene in any movie by tearing at our hearts through eight pounds of makeup as an old blind traveler. Duvall delivers the best line of the movie. When asked by the boy "How would you know if you were the last man on Earth?" he answers, "Well, I guess you wouldn't... you would just have to be that last man on Earth."
The symbiotic relationship between father and son that serves as the core of the film proves both existential and metaphysical. The boy believes in the "do unto others" creed while the man employs the "an eye for an eye" philosophy. The son's saintly perspective finds compassion rather than unnecessary cruelty and slaughter, while father focuses on protecting his son. Although the sad and depressing sojourn has few high-spirited moments, the rampant metaphors and biblical messages are hammered home, boiling down to basic human survival instinct.
This bleak odyssey painfully expresses father and son holding on to their better natures amid against-all-odds conditions resulting in stirring and life-affirming actions. The end of the world might hold nothing but death, destruction and disaster, but Hillcoat's Road paints a powerful almost Zen-like canvas, allowing you to create your own interpretation depending on how much depression you can endure.
The Road ★★★✩✩
Starring Viggo Mortensen,
Charlize Theron, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall
Directed by John Hillcoat