The Road

“The Road” is 2009’s entry in the Movies You Admire and Respect but Don’t Ever Want to Watch Again sweepstakes. You know going in that it’s going to be bleak and somber; the question is whether it’s also going to be profound and touching enough to compensate for that, to make you leave the theater thinking, “I’ve just seen a powerfully emotional work of art!” rather than “I’ve just seen something very, very depressing!”

For me, it was more of the latter. The artistic and emotional highs, while praiseworthy, aren’t high enough to counteract the story’s miserable lows. But having read the Cormac McCarthy book it’s based on, it’s impossible for me not to compare the movie to it. The book is one of the most beautiful, emotionally devastating things I’ve ever read. The movie, even at its best, could only be a repeat of that. But a movie can’t replicate McCarthy’s spare, poetic writing, or at least this one doesn’t, not quite.

The story is simple. In a post-apocalyptic America — nuclear war, probably; the details aren’t important — a man and his little boy trudge through the rubble. We don’t learn their names. The man is played by Viggo Mortensen; the boy, who’s about 10, is Kodi Smit-McPhee. The boy has only ever known this world. In flashbacks, we see his mother (Charlize Theron), who evidently gave birth in the early days of the devastation.

Almost all animal and human life has been destroyed. The man and the boy are heading for the coast, ultimately, finding whatever food they can along the way and avoiding the few humans they see signs of. People have proven untrustworthy in this every-man-for-himself world; cannibalism is a legitimate concern. The man has a gun with two bullets in it. He and the boy have discussed what to do if they are ever in imminent danger of being captured. Could you kill your own child to save him from a fate worse than death? That’s one of the questions you’ll be discussing with your friends after the movie, when you’ve gone to a pub to drink until you feel better.

The man and the boy talk about the “good guys,” which includes them, and the “bad guys,” which includes almost everyone else they’ve encountered. The good guys don’t resort to cannibalism, no matter what. The good guys would work together with other good guys to create a society and pool their resources. There must be some good guys out there somewhere, the man hopes. Can he continue to be one of them until he finds them, or will the cruelty of the situation lead him inevitably to badness?

The director, John Hillcoat, who made a splash with the gritty Australian Western “The Proposition” a few years ago, has done a magnificent job creating an appropriately desolate wasteland for the characters to stumble through, bringing the awful world in which the film takes place vividly to life. The skies are relentlessly gray and overcast, and everything is covered in soot and ashes. The characters are suitably filthy and haggard. The musical score, by Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds bandmate Warren Ellis, is simple and evocative.

Central to the novel’s power is the overwhelming love the father and son have for each other. “All I know is the child is my warrant,” the man says in both the book and the movie. “If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.” By putting the father-son relationship in this horrific setting, McCarthy strips away all the extraneous stuff: These two literally have nothing except each other. A father would do anything to protect his son from the terrors of the world; in the book we see that this holds true even when terrors comprise 99% of what the world has to offer. It’s the discovery of this uplifting truth — that a parent’s love is unconditional and limitless — that makes the arduous journey worthwhile.

In the movie, this message is not conveyed with much strength. Whether it’s due to some missing element of Mortensen’s performance or Joe Penhall’s screenplay adaptation or Hillcoat’s direction — or some combination of those — I can’t tell. What I know is that while the film is often thrilling and generally compelling, it doesn’t have the poignance that it should. Falling under the heading of “good, but not great,” I suspect this “Road” will be less traveled.

B (1 hr., 59 min.; R, a little profanity, some nonsexual nudity, several gruesome images and disturbing themes.)