About a third of the way into The Road, the Father turns to his Son and says, “I will kill anyone who touches you because that’s my job,” and that grim sentiment lies at the heart of John Hillcoat’s (The Proposition) horrifying but powerful vision of fatherhood. Based on Cormac McCarthy’s (No Country For Old Men) lyrical, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, The Road is by turns complex, appalling, beautiful, and deeply moving.
Set in a bleak and cold landscape, the movie takes as its focus a Man and a Boy as they trek along a road, bound for the coast and hopefully warmer climes. The cause of the apocalypse is never explained, just as the characters remain nameless, and it is one of the film’s great triumphs that neither of these choices disrupts the emotions that sit heavily at the center of this harrowing story. This is a film about fathers and sons and about family and good and evil; names and causes have no role to play, other than as a catalyst for stripping the world down to its barest, ice-cold, wrinkled skin. There is only a Man (Viggo Mortensen) and a Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and whatever they can collect to survive on the road south. And there is also hope, even if it is quickly fading.
The Road is not an easy film to watch. Slavishly devoted to McCarthy’s equally bleak novel, the film is all grays and blacks, with only brief flares of fire to break up the darkness. There is screaming, guns and arrows, starvation, grunting and persistent coughs, and at least one horrible (even if it isn’t particularly graphic) depiction of cannibalism. Yet for all of the darkness, the glory and beauty resonant in the Man and Boy’s relationship, as they cling to one another against the impossibility of survival, makes for one of the most moving filmic experiences I've felt in awhile. This is not darkness for darkness’ sake; it is a treatise on what remains in men’s hearts once everything else is gone: love, hope, food, warmth.
And the answer that The Road compellingly posits is that what remains in most men’s hearts is nothing more than animalistic need, a cold, detached frenzy that can only be quenched by death. But in some men there remains a flame that endures and must be passed on if humanity, not just people but that which makes men human, is to survive. Thus the film relentlessly juxtaposes the inherent difficulties in choosing to carry that flame. The Man and Boy are besieged by roving bands of cannibals, are forced to decamp in whatever shelter they can find, and spend much of everyday scavenging for something, anything to eat.
It is a vision of humanity that leaves very little room for happiness, or even hope, and yet there are moments in this film of such sublime joy that Hillcoat almost tips his hand, belies the fact that this is not a mean-spirited depiction of the evil of men. No, this is a film about the elemental quality of the relationship between a father and his son. This is a film about the flame that parents pass to their children, about the urgency of that exchange and about the power and selflessness inherent in parenthood.
Essentially this is a film about love. And it is one of the best of the genre.