You will find no green trees, sunshine, or healthy, happy-looking people in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, much less anyone who even remotely resembles Charlize Theron, so it’s a bit of a surprise to see them all in the opening frames of director John Hillcoat’s movie adaptation. They turn out to be no cause for serious alarm. Hillcoat (The Proposition) and screenwriter Joe Penhall have, in fact, taken remarkably few liberties with McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic bestseller, and those they have help bring to life the themes and emotions beneath the terse prose and bleak narrative.
There’s still plenty of bleakness to go around. The movie’s action picks up with the novel’s first pages as an unnamed man (Mortensen) awakes, wrapped in rags and plastic tarps, in a rude, rain-soaked camp next to an unnamed 11-year-old boy (Smit-McPhee). The unspecified catastrophe artfully hinted at in the prologue has blocked out the sun, snuffed almost all animal life, and killed off all but a handful of human survivors, as a brief voice-over reveals. The man is shepherding the boy, his son, through society’s winter-blasted ruins on foot toward the coast, where some unspecified hope awaits. They are forever searching for increasingly scarce food and water and always on the lookout for the armed gangs who have survived by killing and eating the weak. The man carries an old revolver in his belt, loaded with his last two bullets, held in reserve so he and the boy can commit suicide if they get caught.
This Road is, in many ways, about the difficult transition between one type of world and another, and the addition of Theron as the man’s wife, a barely mentioned background presence in the novel, strengthens the theme. As revealed in flashbacks, she is pregnant with the boy when the cataclysm strikes; during labor, she howls as if it’s not the contractions that torture her, but the pain of knowing what her child faces.
But her son is in many respects better adapted to deal with the new world than his father. Mortensen’s character is no post-apocalyptic ass-kicker. His performance is defined by delicacy and quietness, a kind of ingrained hesitancy, which makes the straits they find themselves in feel even more desperate. He instills in the boy the notion that hope exists as long as they’re alive, and that they’re the “good guys,” as opposed to those who’ll stop at nothing to survive. It’s the boy, however, who helps keep their humanity intact when survival appears most in doubt.
If you haven’t read the book, you might assume that the love story between this father and son is embellished and played up, and that the movie’s ending is a studio-inspired, tacked-on deus ex machina. The movie actually has the arc, if not the tempo or trappings, of a Hollywood blockbuster, but it is McCarthy’s book in spirit, if not in letter. If it feels less grim in the end, it’s no less haunting. — Lee Gardner