The Road

In Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, a father shields his son from the Holocaust by pretending death is a game. That doesn’t happen here. When the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) cowers at stealing the blankets from a child’s rotting corpse, his father (Viggo Mortensen) just grunts, “Nothing you haven’t seen before.” Based on the taut, grim novel by Cormac McCarthy, John Hillcoat has shot an epic that asks just two elemental questions: Can I survive, and if not, am I strong enough to kill myself and my family? This is a movie where within the first five minutes, the Man reminds his son how to commit suicide. In ten, he’s washing another man’s blood and brains from his boy’s hair. So no, it’s not the feel-good movie of the holidays, but there’s enough bleak beauty in this fable that McCarthy won the Pulitzer and the cash-green badge of Oprah. What’s happened to turn the planet post-apocalyptic isn’t clear: there’s a flash of orange, and then “the world grows grayer every day,” says Mortensen. What’s unnerving is that the end of the world was shot on location. Apparently, if you want to see doom, just go to New Orleans or Pittsburgh. We’re shocked out of the gray when the Man dreams of life with his wife (Charlize Theron). She gave birth to their child just after the disaster, and Smit-McPhee—at 11, a little haunted man—is silently wondrous when he sees glimpses of a world he never knew: a mounted deer head, a battered can of Coke. It’s not fun, but it’s a fine production that embraces McCarthy’s darkness and his little glimmers of light, especially the Boy’s innate need to be one of the “good guys,” even though in his lifetime, cannibalism is the norm. Though this is the glummest film of the year, his father and son are still both fighting for life—even at the darkest moment in history, their love is reason enough to go on.

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