While Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road could hardly be deemed unfilmable the way it conveys its primary themes of survival moral responsibility and fierce paternal love through evocative prose and a decidedly minimalist narrative makes it a risky candidate for cinematic adaptation. And considering that the slender story follows an unnamed father and son trekking across a ravaged post-apocalyptic landscape and trying their best to ward off starvation suicidal urges and other survivors who have resorted to theft and cannibalism any film made from the material would need to retain McCarthy’s underlying message of hope lest the whole experience become too oppressively bleak.
Director John Hillcoat’s last film the overrated Australian Western The Proposition was such an aggressive wallow in gratuitous sadism that he would seem a disastrous choice to bring The Road to the screen. And the opening passages of his adaptation — which are marred by a choppy uncertain rhythm and an overreliance on pointless incessant voiceover narration recited by Viggo Mortensen (playing the father AKA The Man) — only confirm that hunch.
But luckily after those uneven first 30 minutes or so the film finds its footing and slows down to the leisurely tempo that this contemplative story requires. On a couple of occasions Hillcoat again indulges in his penchant for gruesome overstatement — when The Man tends to a wound in his leg it’s not with a needle and thread as in the book but with staples hastily used as stitches — and aside from a decent amount of striking painterly wide shots of the film's gray desolate landscape and a few genuinely poetic moments Hillcoat’s touch as a director remains more functional than inspired (which can’t be said of Joel and Ethan Coen who masterfully adapted McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men). Yet he’s intuitive enough to realize that what any film adaptation of McCarthy’s best seller would need to do first and foremost is get the central father-son dynamic exactly right and he and screenwriter Joe Penhall wisely trust in the primal emotional connection between The Man and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to carry the film.
Mortensen and Smit-McPhee who was 11 years old when the film was shot form an organic achingly tender bond. Both actors have shed enough body weight to appear appropriately skeletal as these malnourished characters — there are a few gasp-inducing shots of their ribcages bulging out of their bare torsos — but what’s even more impressive than that physical transformation is the way the two of them find small emotional details that give their characters’ relationship an authentically lived-in feel whether it’s Mortensen’s affectionate laugh at Smit-McPhee’s use of the word "Cheetos" or the contented noise Smit-McPhee makes when Mortensen tucks him in at night. With his effortless ability to convey deep feeling through the lines in his face and through his sad expressive eyes Mortensen would be a challenge for any child actor to keep up with but Smit-McPhee who previously showed promise in the mostly disposable Australian drama Romulus My Father gives a thoughtful nuanced performance that impressively matches Mortensen’s haunted work. It’s within the intimacy between these two actors that McCarthy’s message of staying alive for the person you love the most — even when death seems a tempting escape from hell on earth — is most vividly illustrated onscreen.
A few recognizable faces pop up in extended cameos including Charlize Theron who plays The Man’s now-deceased wife in flashbacks but the only actor who manages to dwarf the two leads is screen legend Robert Duvall. Playing an elderly fellow traveler who The Man and The Boy come across in their exhausting journey toward some kind of hope Duvall movingly captures the tangle of emotions one experiences when reconnecting with humanity after a long spell of loneliness in under 10 minutes of screen time. His pivotal scene is the rare bit that works better in the film than in McCarthy’s book and it’s also a reminder that there are a few actors out there capable of blowing Mortensen the mighty Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings trilogy right off the screen. In a solid film that has a lingering effect nothing stays with you longer than Duvall’s pure emotional rawness.