Reviewed by John Park
The cause of the mass destruction is never explained and the audience is never encouraged to care. The point is everything has died. No plants or animals have existed for the past few years. It’s only the humans who have survived, and since all we make is trouble, this sets the perfect apocalyptic scene. An unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) struggle on, heading south, hoping it will be warmer and more habitable. Their journey is never easy since man has turned against each other, resorting to theft, murder, rape and cannibalism. The naïve son, who still has his youth and innocence intact, is desperate for them to be “the good guys.” And the father doesn’t have the heart to tell him that not everything works that way. But of course, when society has been damaged to such an extent, survival involves getting your hands dirty, an idea never fully grasped by the boy who was born during the most unfortunate times.
Smit-McPhee is convincing in his purest, boyish form, shocked and horrified at every dishonesty and moral corruption from his surroundings. Mortensen gives a truly moving performance as the father who will do literally anything to protect his son; he’s even prepared to shoot the boy himself to spare him the misery and pain of being captured by a hungry band of cannibals. The relationship between the two is never over-done. The boy is by no means too vulnerable to be cute, and the man is not portrayed as the omnipotent superhero who is capable of saving his son time after time. There is a raw, genuine connection between the father and son who aren’t perfect. As the film progresses the conflict of ideals between the two becomes more apparent. The man is prepared to steal and kill for survival whereas through the eyes of the boy, one should never do such things no matter what the circumstances.
A couple of equally talented actors play minor roles. Charlize Theron plays the wife in flashbacks and Robert Duvall plays an old man who is also wandering aimlessly. They have very little screen-time and although it’s easy to think that their acting abilities were under used, The Road reminds us that this is strictly a film about Mortensen and Smit-McPhee and doesn’t deviate away from that.
The scenery couldn’t be more depressing. Dead trees and crops line the pathway and there isn’t even an inch of greenery in sight which is the truly terrifying nature of the film. The bare, grey emptiness constantly reminds us of death and destruction all-round. Even when we do see humans, it’s never a welcoming sight, since they’re most likely to be violent gangs of cannibals who will stop at nothing to eat a bit of flesh.
The Road is a truly heart-felt portrayal of love, pain and human values during the chilling days of a devastating apocalypse. The brutal reality of human nature is never easy to stomach, but what the film shows is the ugly, inconvenient truth. Hillcoat’s take on the ‘end of the world’ genre may be quieter and more subdued but it’s hard to deny that The Road is more intense and effective than anything else we have seen before.