On the first page of The Road—Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of father/son survival in a post-apocalyptic world—we are introduced to a world of darkness and gray, stinking robes and plastic tarpaulins, bleak lifelessness "like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world." But amidst this hell we see a father reaching out to touch his child.
John Hillcoat's film version also opens with this scene, perfectly capturing from the outset the spirit of "love among the ruins" that makes McCarthy's book a true 21st century classic. It's a timeless, ancient story of humanity that recalls the first spark of fire in the primeval caves; but it's also a story of our time, perhaps the truest and most important piece of post-9/11 literature we have. Coming as it does in the waning months of this tumultuous decade, this cinematic adaptation is everything it needs to be and more. This film is of the finest order and an impressively restrained, quietly humane work of art for our fragile times—a triumph of beauty, tragedy, prophecy and redemption.
The film's story—faithfully adapted by playwright Joe Penhall—is simple. Set against the backdrop of an unknown apocalypse, we follow "Man" (Viggo Mortensen in his career-best) and "Boy" (then-11-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee), unnamed because the world is too far gone for such luxuries as names. The father-son duo are survivors in a not-too-distant future in which nature is dying, fires rage, ash permeates the air, and those who aren't cannibals are relegated to scavenging for dead bugs. The Road follows this pair on their perilous journey to the coast, a place of perpetual hope in which the air might be warmer and the food might be easier. It's an apocalypse film writ small: An intimate portrayal of two people "on the road," trying to live a life that is a little bit more than just avoiding death.
One of many things Hillcoat nails in this film is that it perfectly envisions the literary mood and visceral landscape of McCarthy's book. Hillcoat, whose previous film The Proposition was inspired by McCarthy's Blood Meridian, wisely shot the film in ravaged-by-disaster, real-world locations like Mount St. Helens and post-Katrina New Orleans, capturing the right balance of familiarity (abandoned malls, decaying amusement parks, still-carbonated Coke cans) and apocalyptic horror (smoke and fire on every horizon, rootless trees falling all over the place, graffiti-filled billboards that say "Behold the Valley of Slaughter"). The characters, grimy and tattered in layers of plastic and improvised raincoats, push their carts and look no different than the urban homeless in any contemporary city. They're nomadic and skeletal, moving from haven to haven in search of food and protection from the harsh elements—and harsher bad guys always patrolling the road.
The world of The Road, void as it is of the accoutrements of Western civilization (technology, commerce, healthcare, electricity, etc.), is haunted by the vestiges of its former glory. The man is always having flashbacks to the happier times, when flowers bloomed, the sun shined, and people still played music. Pianos are a prominent symbol of this forgotten place, underscored in Nick Cave's lovely piano-centric score. The man remembers when he and his wife (Charlize Theron, seen only in flashbacks) played piano together, and in one scene he comes across a decrepit upright and can't help but cry out. It's a lament for a world that will never be again.