At last: The long-delayed, ambivalently-anticipated, Viggo Mortensen-intensive adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel, about a man and his young son wandering through a glumly gritty post-apocalyptic world, will be playing at a theater near you. And just in time to kick off the holiday season! Here’s a movie with a few suggestions about what you might want to be thankful for.
“Each day is more gray than the one before,” Mortensen’s nameless character solemnly narrates early on. He’s not lying. Unless, that is, you consider it a lie of omission that he doesn’t say each day is also, relatedly, more brown than the one before. If “The Road” is not a fully original vision, it does at least seem like a contender for distinction as 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 prior to the mentioning of screenwriter Joe Penhall or director John Hillcoat. Not that those two obvious reticence appreciators should mind: Probably aware that movies have by now rendered trite the notion of coping with life after an apocalypse (partly through requisite flashbacks to before the apocalypse), Penhall and Hillcoat seem to have determined in advance that theirs will be the one spelling absolutely nothing out.
McCarthy set that precedent in his book, of course, and it seemed like both a stylistic hallmark and a political stance: If mankind must insist on besmirching its own dignity, his novel suggested, the noticing author seems therefore magnanimous when allowing at least for the dignity of narrative restraint. The movie agrees, and so we see a ruined city, and some vestigial carnage (not to mention a couple of off-screen butcherings), but the details of how the end of it all got started will remain artfully (grayly, brownly) obscured. As cinematic cataclysms go, it is rather proudly the opposite of a Roland Emmerich film.
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. In “The Road,” small roles are like foodstuffs: precious, perishable, 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 a) greasy-haired, b) occasionally nude, or c) both. In these regards, “The Road” is always there for him, as he is for it. And it’s very much to his credit that the overall one-noteness of the thing compels more than it irritates. Give this man a gun with two bullets and a kid to look after, and just watch him go. Even if he’s going nowhere.
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.” God here is played by Himself, with characteristic taciturnity (all told, maybe not enough of a stretch). 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 very feasibly the offspring of Mortensen and Charlize Theron, who in a brief and lambent spell plays the boy’s mother. She’s appropriately cast too, in the sense that even her absence has presence.
Absence, after all, is supposed to be par for this course. With that in mind, and 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 yes, and just look what we’ve done with that gift from Prometheus, whose reward for giving it to us was protracted torture. Well, if this road really is the one ahead for humanity, maybe he can consider us even.