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The Road Review – After the Apocalypse Comes Viggo’s Walking Nightmare

The Road Review – After the Apocalypse Comes Viggo’s Walking Nightmare” width=”560″/>

The feel-bad movie of the year, The Road has “important” written all over it, from its big theme (can compassion and human decency survive in the face of unrelenting deprivation and savagery?) to its brutally degraded landscapes of fire and rain and ash. But there’s a hollowness to director John Hillcoat‘s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning post-apocalyptic chronicle.

The end of the world comes in “a shear of light and a series of low concussions” that kills every living thing — birds, beasts, vegetation, even the cockroaches everyone said would inherit the earth — except for a few human beings. In the years that follow, most of them succumb to starvation, suicide and butchery. With nothing else to eat, the human race begins to devour itself, the strong and ruthless preying on the weak.

Some ten years later, the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), born just after the holocaust, are walking south in the slim hope of finding warmth, both literal and metaphorical. No sun penetrates the ashy sky up north; every winter is colder than the one before, and every house and store has been stripped of warm clothing, canned goods, fuel and ammunition. The Man carries a gun and two bullets — one for each of them should life become too much to bear. Fires rage at night and roving bands of cannibals hunt down the bedraggled survivors who venture out of hiding. The Man’s wife (Charlize Theron) gave up years earlier and walked into the darkness to die; he perseveres for the sake of his son, hoping to live long enough to teach him the rudiments of survival in this harsh, unforgiving new world.

That’s pretty much all there is by way of plot: Father and son walk, pushing a cart filled with whatever useful scraps they’ve scavenged, and occasionally cross paths with other survivors. They stop briefly at the house where the man was born, and again at a capacious home on a hill, where they discover an underground cavern filled with naked, emaciated men and women destined for the cast-iron stewpot in the yard. They discover a fallout shelter stocked with food, cigarettes and whiskey, but are forced to move on; they briefly fall in with elderly preacher Ely (Robert Duvall) — the only character with a name — but leave him behind at the Man’s pragmatic insistence.

The Road is the high-minded antithesis of 2012, an end-of-days wallow in the giddy spectacle of large-scale destruction. This movie is mired in morning-after misery, set in a world where fear of a living hell is more reasonable than hope of heaven. But for all the movie’s exhausting emotional rigor, it’s oddly uninvolving. Blame it on the relentless voice-over; in the book, the man’s internal monologue is the filter through which we experience the blasted, dying world, but the movie has images at its disposal, and its ruined towns, crumbling highways, vast expanses of ash floe and dead trees toppling speak louder than the Man’s musings. Blame it on the absence of chemistry between Mortensen and Smit-McPhee (who does, it must be said, bear a remarkable resemblance to Theron) or the overuse of flashbacks to the world that was, filled with flowers and blue skies and love. Or perhaps the culprit is studio interference: The Road was originally scheduled to open a year ago, and it’s not hard to imagine that part of the delay was produced by attempts to make it slightly less cut-your-wrists bleak. Whatever the cause, The Road is thoroughly admirable without being entirely successful: It’s watching a nightmare rather than living one.

To get an alternate movie review of The Road, go to AMC Filmcritic.com

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