At last, the long-delayed, Viggo Mortensen-intensive adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, about a man and his young son wandering through a glumly gritty post-apocalyptic world, has arrived. Just in time for the holiday season! Here is a movie to remind you that you’ve got a lot to be thankful for.
From Lord of the Rings to king of The Road: Viggo Mortensen guards Kodi Smit-McPhee through the cinematic waste land of Cormac McCarthy’s story.
“Each day is more gray than the one before,” Mortensen’s nameless character says in solemn narration early on. He’s not lying—unless you consider it a lie of omission that he doesn’t also say each day is more brown than the one before. The Road may be the grayest and brownest movie ever made. And it is starkly beautiful, in just such a way as to warrant the mention here of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe in advance of mentioning screenwriter Joe Penhall or director John Hillcoat.
Many movies have rendered trite the notion of surviving in the post-apocalypse gloom with flashbacks to the pre-apocalypse. This will be one that leaves much of the past out. McCarthy set that precedent in his book, apparently because if mankind must insist on besmirching its own dignity, it’ll seem magnanimous in saying so to allow for the dignity of narrative restraint. We see a ruined city, and some vestigial carnage (not to mention a couple of off-screen butcherings), but the details of what actually happened remain artfully obscured.
All we really know is that earthquakes are involved. And that most of our species—in America, at least—didn’t make it. And that Robert Duvall, with his soulful, turbid eyes, saw it coming. But of course he did. He’s Robert effing Duvall. Small roles in The Road are like food: precious, savored. There’s one for Michael Kenneth Williams, whom you may recall as Omar from “The Wire,” and one for Guy Pearce, too.
As for the big role, it might be called the performance of Mortensen’s career, if only because he seems most in his element when greasy-haired, or nude, or both. The Road is always there for him, as he is for it.
Now here’s another Cormac McCarthyish thing Mortensen’s character says: “All I know is the child is my warrant. And if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.” The child is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee—quite well, given what might be the most potentially traumatizing role for a young actor since Danny Lloyd was cast in The Shining, and quite feasibly the offspring of Mortensen and Charlize Theron, who plays the boy’s mother.
For all of The Road’s reserve, maybe there’s a tad too much talk of what it means to be “the good guys”—namely, “carrying the fire.” Ah, and just look what we’ve done with that gift from Prometheus, whose reward for giving it to us was torture. Well, if this road really is the one ahead for humanity, he can consider us even.