The Road opens with a dreamy, brightly lit montage of domestic tranquility (wife, garden, horse) that is rudely interrupted as a man — excuse me, make that "The Man" (Viggo Mortensen) — awakens from his dreams to confront the gray, lifeless world stretched before him. Months, perhaps years, of subsistence-level misery have settled firmly on the backs of the Man and his son, the Boy (Kody Smit-McPhee). We learn quickly that the Man's wife (Charlize Theron) has been gone for a long time, lingering only in the Man's tormented memories. The hellish, monochromatic landscape this father-son couple trudges through is as cold and final as the ashes of a fireplace. No one trusts anyone. No one has any food. Bands of cannibals roam the land.
Sounds fun, doesn't it?
By honoring the grim contours of Cormac McCarthy's 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning father-son fable, director John Hillcoat has also shown just how difficult it is to translate McCarthy's sometimes poetic, sometimes turgid, resolutely downbeat works to the screen.
Early on, Hillcoat and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe create sparse lighting effects as suggestive as McCarthy's landscape descriptions. For instance, the opening chaos is never described, but the orange glow beyond the bedroom curtains that wakes Mortensen and Theron evokes that vaguely invasive quality of the best literary horror. But McCarthy's spareness as a writer is deceptive. His novels may seem ideal for filmmaking, but the torrents of description and the litanies of cruelty leave his works, for all their arcane diction, magical adjective amulets, and long-winded quasi-moral tales of roughnecks on the road, strangely hollow.
For a while, Hillcoat's imagery turns even this hollowness to his advantage. As the Man and the Boy wander among the dying trees and listing telephone poles, the director's eye for rural-urban despair energizes a couple of shots, notably when Mortensen stands on an abandoned highway overpass and pushes his wedding ring off and into a canyon. Too often, though, this is shoddy disaster filmmaking. Too many passages are as smudged and overdone as pencil sketches in a precocious child's notebook.
Some sequences belong in a horror film, as when the boy and his father face off against a Deliverance reject peeing in the woods or spelunk an old manse filled with ghastly winter provisions. But the simplicity of the story and the tiny percentage of meaningful cast members removes the danger from these encounters. Paradoxically, the grisly implications of slaughter and inhumanity are rendered more remote and distant by the story and the filmmakers' focus on the parent and his kid.
Similarly, the few flares of compassion throughout the film are illuminating without being transformative. As they whine, hug, and shiver together, Mortensen and Smit-McPhee push hard against their characters' limitations, but they still remain a skeleton of a family with little possibility for growth. (About an hour into this ordeal, The Road starts to feel like a ghoulish, high-concept buddy picture.) The Man points out to the Boy over and over again that their environment is too hostile for luxuries like kindness and generosity. So is such a selfish society even worth preserving?
Maybe a better question to ask is this: Just how seriously should you take The Road's portentous, blood-dimmed tidings? Other than budget, what really separates this film's sparse, artsy end-of-the-world solemnity from the CGI-blighted Chicken Littling of 2012? Once you cut through the production design and the blowsy allegorical trappings, it's more than a little silly to watch two characters act as though the central conceit of a Bob Seger song — "the fire inside" — holds the key to survival. And product placement is still crude and insulting, especially when it's slipped into a scene that devolves into the world's most depressing soft drink commercial.