Despite how exciting it may look in a movie like 2012, or how amusing it may seem in a movie like Zombieland, the actual end of the world would just be incredibly shitty. The sheer shittiness of the collapse of civilization is heartbreakingly illustrated in The Road, John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning postapocalyptic novel. Hillcoat, director of the bleak Australian Western The Proposition, takes McCarthy’s mannered, almost impressionistic prose and cuts out much of the language, instead using stark images to convey the devastation facing an unnamed man (Mortensen) and his son (Smit-McPhee) as they travel toward the American coastline years after some disaster has ravaged the planet.
Like the novel, Hillcoat’s film dumps the audience right into a world that fell apart years ago, where even the salvageable elements of civilization that show up in many postapocalypse movies have been stripped away. The man and the boy make their way to the only beacon of hope they can imagine, the ocean, even as there’s a clear sense that things won’t be any better when they arrive. They scrounge for food and clothing and fend off cannibalistic marauders who are roaming the countryside.
Secondary characters are minimal to nonexistent, so Mortensen and Smit-McPhee must carry the film, and they do the job exceptionally well. Mortensen is practiced at playing the beleaguered stoic, but he also conveys the man’s deep love for his son under his impassive exterior. And Smit-McPhee achieves a delicate balance of childish confusion and the world-weariness that comes from living an entire life hungry and freezing. In flashbacks, Charlize Theron is effective as the boy’s mother, who gives up on life rather than face the harsh outside world.
Those flashbacks constitute Hillcoat’s most significant expansion on McCarthy’s novel, but they don’t feel superfluous. McCarthy’s cavalier attitude toward punctuation gives his prose a sort of unreal quality, and Hillcoat grounds the story in desolate landscapes and crumbling structures, to contrast with the warm colors of the brief looks back to happier times. He goes a little too far with sentiment on occasion (toning down the score would help), but even the relatively hopeful ending has the sting of possible disaster. Like its protagonists, the movie is implacable and unyielding, and may very well break you down.