End times are with us again, it seems, peaking in the American brainpan beyond even the levels enjoyed during the Cold War, and doubtlessly fed by the river of fear-mongering napalm that pours forth from 24-hour news channels, instant cyber-crises and always-alarmed personal media. How could we stand a chance, when plugged into so many cheap sources of input always hungry for eyes and ears and eager for a bank run or apocalyptic prophecy? Maybe in no other year besides 1973 could Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” be made into a major Hollywood production, lean and deadly avalanche-read sonofabitch that it is, speaking into the reader’s ears with the matter-of-fact voice of his or her worst post-nuclear nightmares.
That’s just one hurdle for director John Hillcoat, making the camera speak with McCarthy’s tongue, and Joel and Ethan Coen’s assiduous pauses and chilly distance fared far better than Hillcoat’s plaintive earnestness. But the first thing one must acknowledge about “The Road” is how beautiful and dead serious and respectful it is, and the second thing is how much you find yourself wishing that all of that mattered more in the end.
A long, relentless, serotonin-depleted trek to nowhere, tinted entirely in the color of polluted water, Hillcoat’s movie is a faithful transcription of the book’s physical narrative (minus the infants-on-a-spit), in which a father (Viggo Mortensen, looking more and more as he starves like Roberts Blossom) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trudge across a scorched North America, heading south, looking for food and finding none, and evading the ever-increasing mini-tribes of cannibals that roam in trucks and inhabit farmhouses. There’s no future for the father to tell his son to look forward to. The weather is sunless and cold, always. You can put down McCarthy for a break when you’ve had enough, but after an hour of the film, you cannot be blamed for fondly remembering the jaunty good spirits of “Antichrist.”
Hillcoat did nothing outrageously wrong — except make the film at all, and try to digitize the spectacular doominess we felt between McCarthy’s clipped sentences. There’s a crystal-clear struggle here between the linguistically suggestive and the visual literal, and suggestive wins in a rout.
Still, “The Road” is, in fact, made as carefully as one would hope. The gray vistas of spectacular ruin, the heavy-breathing pessimism, the poetic details (or even unpoetic, like that briefly glimpsed dish of blood with a severed nose poking out of it) — this is not a whitewashed or compromised vision of a painfully possible future, and its resolve is formidable. At various intervals in the discomfiting slog, you will, especially if you’re a parent, get sick in your soul trying not to contemplate how you’d carry yourself through even a single day of McCarthy’s scenario.
But what we have here otherwise is the unfortunate triumph of message over experience — eventually, the colorless, unending grimness grows dull. Visual ideas, like the lakes filled with dead trees and the evocation of contemporary homeless-person outfitting, are fascinating in their moment, and the bits of McCarthian narration contribute sprouts of lyrical eloquence to the ash. But the dreary uniformity wins out. If only the film were a little pulpier, a little more inventive, had more stuff in it — it’s winnowed down, like McCarthy’s protagonists, to a single dilemma, and the narrative, again like its characters, grows more skeletal and unvarying as it staggers to its end-game.
Charlize Theron’s wife, glimpsed in semi-sunlit flashbacks succumbing to hopelessness and abandoning herself to the wilderness, seems the more reasonable character, which in itself suggests a way this film might survive in our collective memory — the one post-apocalyptic tale in which suicide seems the smart way out. But perhaps not. Admirable as it is, “The Road” pounds its gloom home like a Gregorian chanter pounds the psalm tone, and you quickly grow numb.