This is not a milk delivery

The Road is a nasty post-apocalypse movie by John Hillcoat, based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. The basic story is very simple – a man and his son are walking south towards the coast through a post-apocalyptic landscape, trying to survive while they head for the sea. The cause of the apocalypse is not described, but the land has been locked in a perpetual winter, all the animals and plants are dead and gone, and there are no surviving communities. What few humans there are mostly live by cannibalism, scavenging the ruined towns and cities for any edible remnants of the time before but mostly living by killing and eating other travellers – or keeping them alive and eating them bit by bit, depending on how clever they are. The sky, the land and the buildings are all grey, there is regular rain and snow, and the father in the story is slowly dying of what appears to be some kind of apocalypse-related disease. They are heading south in hopes of finding land capable of sustaining life and communities, and also some warmth, because they realize they can’t survive another winter in the freezing inland.

The majority of this movie is a story completely without goodness or hope. The scenes of cannibalism are quite horrific, and the two lead characters do not have any positive encounters with people during their travels. They hide from any people they see, and don’t trust anyone. On several occasions they stumble on functioning small communities of about the size of a small gang, only to discover that they are cannibals living in horrifyingly primitive and evil circumstances, and have to flee. Even the non-cannibals they meet have hints of terrible pasts – an old man who may have eaten his own son, for example – and the two main characters are themselves constantly starving, so that the question of “would you or wouldn’t you?” weighs heavily upon them.

This movie was probably a little too grim for my tastes, and strikes me as one of those moments where a book shouldn’t have been made into a film. It’s just too nasty to put actors to, even if the actors in question manage to do the job brilliantly. The world of the apocalypse is powerfully done, so that you really do feel like you’re there, and there’s not really anything you question about the veracity of the setting – it’s internally very consistent. Viggo Mortensen puts in a powerful performance as the father, and all the other actors live up to their parts most admirably. But you find yourself thinking, by the end of it, that surely even the most powerful artistic powers are thoroughly wasted if they are bending their prodigious talents to the production of something so horrific and grim as this.

My only two complaints with this movie are minor, but they may bug other viewers too. The boy – Viggo Mortensen’s son – played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, is annoyingly weak and innocent, and does things that after 7 or 10 years of post-apocalyptic life you’d think would be well beaten out of any sensible survivor. He seems to have no cynicism or mistrust, he is physically weak (reasonable, I suppose) and he is incapable of being silent when he needs to be. He also doesn’t seem to analyze situations very well, either. His innocence and purity are so inconsistent with the world around him that it makes one think he was written into the story as a kind of allegory of human conscience, in which case it was all done rather clumsily. At times his mistakes and weak points are quite frustrating, and it’s hard to believe that after 10 years of dodging cannibals – and in some cases watching them kill and eat the people who don’t dodge them – he hasn’t quite managed to work out that he is living in a world where no-one can be trusted. But I can also see that this is the intent of the story – the father has managed to shelter his boy from the worst of the apocalypse for years, and has difficulty preparing the boy to look after himself once papa dies.

My other complaint is that the ending seems a bit deus ex machina, in that after setting up a world of such unrelenting cruelty, that presents its survivors with such hard and nasty choices, the final resolution to the plot seems so unbelievable as to be almost an act of god. However, the presence of a moment of hopefulness in an otherwise completely forlorn and ruined world made it acceptable. Had the movie ended more realistically, with the final scene being the kid being butchered and eaten by scumbags, I probably would have set fire to my tv. Or myself.

In short, this is a great movie that it’s best not to watch.