It's a miracle "The Road" works at all, given the harsh, murmuring severity of its source, the 2006 Cormac McCarthy novel full of minimally punctuated dialogue, taking place in a world ravaged by an event -- human-made? climatological? -- unspecified by the author.
Director John Hillcoat's film version, scripted by playwright Joe Penhall, constitutes an act of faithful adaptation. Yet its faithfulness is more to the letter than the spirit, and it's not the work of an inspired director, merely a dogged one. The script and the imagery take the story in some peculiar directions in the name of "relatability" and, odd as it sounds, sentimentality. The best thing about the film is Viggo Mortensen's performance. A stealth talent of many shadings, Mortensen has a way of fitting easily into nearly any period, any milieu.
He plays the man with no name, a survivor of the global apocalypse, making his way south to the coast with his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee, affecting and true). This film is the opposite of "2012," which is, of course, stupid (though I enjoyed it) and all about the "why" and "how" in relation to wiping out millions. "The Road" is not stupid: This most noble and stripped-down of road movies is a story of a father bequeathing to his son every decent lesson in survival and humanity he can before it's too late.
The story has its share of "bad guys," cannibals and marauders, threatening the oft-referred-to "good guys." (For all his grace and skill as a prose stylist, McCarthy prefers his moral boundaries clean and clear, even in a muddy landscape such as this.) As father and son and their shopping cart head down desolate highways, scrounging for food, they meet up with a blind man (Robert Duvall), among others. They reach the father's childhood home. The film pushes on, from adversity to triumph to lucky break to heartbreak. The good father and his saintly boy, who must "carry the fire" when he is gone, cannot help but tug at the heart, even as Hillcoat's direction struggles to find a rhythm, a dramatic shape, for the ashen wash of circumstance.
The peculiar thing about "The Road," on screen, is its determination to comfort us. An ill-advised number of flashbacks featuring Charlize Theron as the long-gone mother of the boy serve as honey-toned relief from the present-day grimness. Hillcoat and his designers, working in the real and digital worlds, manage to create a convincing series of locales and vegetation-free horizons. Yet the direction is static. The individual images evoke plenty, but the scenes often stall, even when it's another life-and-death encounter with the redneck cannibals who do not carry the fire.
In David Mamet's 1988 play "Speed-the-Plow," two studio executives joke about the insanity of adapting a literary allegory titled "The Bridge; or, Radiation and the Half-Life of Society." "The Road" is the closest we'll ever get to seeing that (nonexistent) number at the multiplexes. Already, Hillcoat's film has divided critics on the international festival circuit. The one constant is the praise, rightly so, for Mortensen. On balance he makes the movie worth a tussle, though I prefer my blasted-landscape allegories (Bergman's "Shame" being the paragon) without a climax that tries to jerk more tears than "Shane" did.