With its drearily brief paragraphs and poetic emphasis on imagery over dialogue, Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 post-apocalyptic novel “The Road” practically reads like a screenplay. Not unreasonably, John Hillcoat’s tense, discomfiting big screen adaptation remains almost entirely faithful to the book’s distinctive pace and tone. The maintenance of this restrained progression is key to the movie’s chilly effect, but the subtle ingredients behind such morbidity — dreary-eyed performances, an enigmatic score, visual suggestions of death and decay in nearly every frame — turn Hillcoat’s version of “The Road” into a uniquely cinematic portrait of pessimism.
Like Joel and Ethan Coens’s eerily soft-spoken version of McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men,” much of the movie unfolds with grimly fleeting dialogue that sticks to the ground like lead. The conversations rarely move the plot forward. Instead, they reflect the dour environment. What “The Road” lacks in joy, however, it mostly regains in character depth. Although set in an undefined near future, it has a narrow, minimalist premise that’s easily interpretable, loosely constructed and intentionally vague. A man (Viggo Mortensen) and his boy (newcomer Kodi Smith-McPhee) wander across the desolate landscape of a charred America in the wake of some unclassified catastrophe. The boy’s mother (Charlize Theron, seen only in flashbacks) abandoned them in anguish long ago. The remaining family unit wanders south along a strip of woodsy terrain, making a desperate attempt to survive the winter and avoid hostile drifters. Their world has turned against them. Cannibals lurk in the forest and occupy homes in the countryside. Survivors travel in small groups and trust no one.
Unlike other movies about a desolate future, “The Road” is intentionally one-note. Where “Mad Max” matched the setting with an archetypical western hero and his B-movie revenge motives, “The Road” relies on imprecise details for the sake of thematic continuity. The world embodies fragility and doom, but its entire mythology is composed of abstractions. The perfunctory quest stays wholly subservient to the mood. It’s a survival narrative about the futility of survival narratives, an existential rumination on lost causes. Don’t expect a solution to the enigmas behind the end-of-the-world scenario or a climactic finish. Hillcoat cautiously maneuvers around trite dramatic cadences.
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Nevertheless, if you haven’t seen anything like this before, you’ve seen pieces of it. One of the reasons millions of people (including Oprah and her devout book-of-the-month followers) found McCarthy’s original novel so compelling was because the author drew on classic storytelling ingredients and simply removed the context, allowing greater room for metaphor. There are guns fired, mutilated victims, fiery explosions and moments of precisely calculated suspense, but the momentum feels strangely lethargic and engaging at the same time. Movies involving perilous sojourns usually scramble to fit epic journeys into 90 or 120 minutes, but “The Road” merely offers a side glance of the bigger picture. Needless to say, this is not your typical commercialized end-of-the-world spectacle. We have Roland Emmerich for that.
Having previously directed the first-rate Australian western “The Proposition,” Hillcoat’s resume certainly qualifies him for this material. Like his third feature, “The Road” exclusively takes place in a barren landscape with only a handful of characters. The result unquestionably resembles the movie in most readers’ heads — a noble accomplishment that usually backfires (think “Watchmen”), but not so much in this case. Still, Mortensen’s mildly distracting voiceover — abandoned halfway through — should have been excised, since the imagery provides enough background information for the conceptual scenario. Javier Aguirresarobe’s drab cinematography (which comes up for air in a few colorful flashback sequences) resembles European art cinema more than any recent American movie, with the possible exceptions of “There Will Be Blood.” The sparse, haunting piano score (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) maintains the movie’s emotional trajectory.
Ultimately, though, “The Road” works as a strangely experimental vision that appeals to people receptive to its downbeat ways. If you can jive with its solemn rhythm, this is a movie of performances — actually, pretty much just two of them: Mortensen, with his eyes sunk deep into his skull, delivers a carefully understated interpretation of vanity in the face of defeat. The young Smith-McPhee struggles to look frightened and confused in nearly every shot, but it’s hard to expect anything else from him. The emphasis lies in the chemistry between Mortensen and Smith-McPhee. Since they’re a believable family unit, “The Road” becomes a fully functional reality on its own terms. “You think I’m from another world, don’t you?” the father asks his child. The boy has his reasons, but the main scare factor for viewers of “The Road” comes from its nightmarish familiarity.