The Road is based on Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel and, as far as roads go, this one is long, hard, brutal, pitiless and profoundly horrible, plus there doesn’t seem to be much reward for sticking with it. It is very much like the North Circular in all these respects, unless you count finally getting to Ikea as a reward, which no one in their right mind would. ‘The horror, the horror,’ as Joseph Conrad would surely have said, if he’d found himself in Ikea on a Saturday afternoon. He might also have added: ‘And the meatballs are rubbish,’ but we’ll just never really know.
But here? With this road? OK, here we have a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his 8-year-old son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who appear to be among the last survivors of some unspecified cataclysm. We don’t know what disaster has struck — nuclear?; environmental? — only that it has, and now the earth is washed up, pretty much. The landscape is wrecked. Trees eerily creek and then crash to the ground. Random fires burn. An obscured sun casts a dingy, brown light. Everything is blanketed in a choking ash. Abandoned cars festoon the highways as, post-apocalyptically, they always do. (Just once, I would like a post-apocalyptic film to feature balloons.) Only a few flashbacks refer to a time before, when the world was in colour, the boy was a baby, and there was a mother on the scene, as played by a glowing, golden Charlize Theron, who at least had the sense to check out early.
The man and his son are seeking the sea, if only because it gives them some purpose. The father is scared of not being able to protect the boy. The boy is scared that his father is losing his humanity, will stop being one of the ‘good guys’. All other survivors seem to be bad guys, particularly the terrifying cannibals who rove in gangs like flesh-eating zombies from a horror movie. The journey is one of desperate scavenging punctuated by moments of acute danger, various horrors — vomiting, coughing blood, severed heads, puddles of guts — and having Robert Duvall turn up as an all-but-dead old lump named Eli, giving it all a faintly religious, Old Testament tone. Adapted by the British playwright Joe Penhall, and directed by John Hillcoat (who made the slickly violent The Proposition), this is an endurance test as much for us as for those on screen, but to what end? We’re being asked to sit through this for why, exactly?
This film is not badly done. Most of it, in fact, is well done. The dying, blighted earth is hauntingly and chillingly captured. There are powerfully affecting moments. We feel the paternal bond. Mortensen and Smit-McPhee are magnificently intense. But? It just isn’t satisfying in any way, probably because it shrinks from answering its own questions. Can humankind retain its decency once stripped of everything else? Is man’s nature essentially savage? And, ultimately, it doesn’t answer the question Charlize asked just before she so sensibly checked out: what is the point of going on? As I have not read the book — give us a break, I’m behind with Come Dine With Me as it is — I cannot say how faithful this is but, having read other McCarthy books, would say the novel probably repaid your attention with its astonishing prose. This, though, puts you through the wringer, but doesn’t repay you in any way. This was always going to be a bravely non-commercial film — which, you can bet, will mean it’ll be hailed as a masterpiece in some quarters — but it’s mostly a monotonous slog. This road goes nowhere, which is better than Ikea, but it is nowhere all the same.