‘The Road’ takes a cautious route
In “The Road,’’ the world has ended with a bang and a whimper. Author Cormac McCarthy’s lean prose has been lifted off the printed page and laid carefully into the soundtrack like antique china in a packing crate. “The clocks stopped at 1:17,’’ says the narrator. “A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.’’ That’s all we know about the apocalypse and all we need to know.
The movie takes place in an America that has been turned into an ash heap, with skeletal human survivors picking their way across the cinders. Kept rigorously in the foreground are a Man (Viggo Mortensen) and a Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the latter born shortly after the end came and thus a creature exclusively of this fallen world.
The two are traveling from the interior to the coast before winter comes - that’s the action of the movie. That, and keeping clear of marauding bands of men who would gladly skin them and eat them. Also, as the boy reminds his father, the two “carry the fire,’’ whatever that means. It could refer to decency and goodness, the guttering spark of humanity. It could just mean they’re still alive.
“The Road’’ has been poured straight from McCarthy’s bleak bottle and brought to the screen by Australian John Hillcoat, who turned the 2005 Outback Western “The Proposition’’ into an epic of blasted landscapes and bloody motivations. He’s the man for the job, yet in adapting this harsh, unyielding book for the screen, Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall pull their punches the slightest degree and thus too much.
Or maybe movies can only dully visualize horrors the best writers hint at. Hillcoat’s “Road’’ is true to the book’s profoundly moving post-nuclear stoicism, but it can’t quite get those biblical cadences that make McCarthy such a transfixing read. The Coens managed it with “No Country for Old Men,’’ so it can be done, but you have to be willing to go all the way into the dark. As a colleague said after seeing this movie, you need to show the baby on the spit. “The Road’’ doesn’t dare, can’t dare, and is the lesser thing.
What’s on the screen is disturbing enough. (Even at that, it has taken a year for the Weinsteins, the producers and distributors of “The Road,’’ to get the nerve to release the film.) As the Man and the Boy drag their shopping cart across what’s left of America, the enormity of the cataclysm is glimpsed forward and backward. A wife (Charlize Theron) who may have been the braver for opting out. An impossibly old man (Robert Duvall) like a figure out of “Godot,’’ unable to go on but still going on. A trap door in a kitchen that leads to something you’d better not think about.
There are other basements and further revelations in “The Road,’’ but Hillcoat avoids jack-in-the-box suspense clichés; the movie plods with a literalism that’s at times too reverent (as is Nick Cave’s score, piling on a sensitive “mournfulness’’ both redundant and unnecessary). Mortensen underplays his role admirably, and Smit-McPhee is gratifyingly unactorly. At the movie’s best we see their relationship shift as something crucial and inarticulate is passed from one generation to the next.
Like all end-of-the-world fiction, “The Road’’ brings iconic meaning to the smallest of gestures. A single kindness becomes the hope of humanity; a cruel act the path to hell. If I have mixed feelings about the movie, it’s because Hillcoat honors the story’s minimalism without bringing his own sensibilities to bear on the material. He’s spooked by the responsibility, and maybe he’s right: When the director does add a single furry detail to the final scenes, it feels like a surrender to sentiment.
At the same time, everything about the film is a welcome rebuke to the happy-face apocalypse of “2012,’’ a movie that turns mass extinction into the Greatest Show on Earth. In “The Road,’’ what has been lost is recognized as infinitely precious; what’s left is bitter and our due.