It is more than ten years since the world was destroyed—by what, nobody can say. Whatever it was, is that there is no energy, no power, no vegetation, no food.
The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are on the move with all their precious possessions—whatever food and clothing they can scrounge—on their backs and in a shopping cart outfitted with a bicycle mirror so they can see who's coming up behind them. Their desperate, improvised traveling gear and their scruffy unwashed bodies give them the look of the homeless. And that is what they are. That's what everybody is in this lifeless frontier.
Even in this bleak universe, there are moments of happiness. The child's innate goodness, his compassion and his sense of wonder and curiosity remind the man of why he must keep on going no matter what, even when he has forgotten why he must do it.
A Man. A Boy. A shopping cart. The road. These are the characters. The Man and Boy walk. Heading south, hoping for warmth, hoping for food. They are not alone in the world, but they have only each other. They are not alone on the road, though they may wish they were. The landscape is desolated. No plant life left. No animals left. What few people survive are desperate, starving. Scavengers. Cannibals. The Man and Boy have only each other, can trust only each other. They walk south, hoping for warmth, hoping for food.
In choosing to adapt Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 'The Road', director John Hillcoat ('The Proposition') has perhaps set himself an impossible task. The book is what many would describe as unfilmable, but not for the usual reasons filmmakers face when adapting famous novels. Its story is not particularly complex in plot or rich in character. In the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, the Man and Boy walk down the road, struggling for survival, avoiding danger (meaning: anyone else they should encounter) whenever possible. They have no plan or goal other than to keep moving until they find something, anything. We know little of the Man's life before the event, just brief snippets told in flashback. He had a wife, but now she's gone. The boy was born into this dead world and knows of nothing else. They have no names and few defining characteristics beyond their desperation, and the Man's overwhelming paranoia. They have a pistol with only two bullets left. Although they both want to live, if cornered, they're prepared to use those two bullets on each other.
McCarthy's novel is deceptively simple, almost rudimentary in story. Its power comes almost entirely from the author's stark prose, his brutally poetic descriptions of a world choked by soot and ash, where there's no distinction between day or night because the skies have been completely clouded by dirt and debris, and the oceans have turned to viscous sludge. Those are things difficult, almost impossible to capture on film without $100 million in digital effects, the presence of which would inevitably draw attention to themselves and necessitate that this be a very different sort of movie – something with more action, excitement, and box office potential to justify that sort of budget.
Hillcoat does the best he can with a modest budget. He's filmed in fairly barren locations, digitally augmented when necessary, and bathed the image in dingy browns and grays. It looks suitably bleak, though it hardly begins to capture McCarthy's descriptions. The director takes the material seriously, and tries to stay faithful to the characters and their motivations. Viggo Mortensen is suitably stoic and grizzled in the lead, and child actor Kodi Smit-McPhee isn't too annoyingly precocious. Charlize Theron makes a few brief appearances as the Man's wife in flashback.
The plot of the movie is reasonably faithful to the book's. The script conflates a few story points and excises others, but nothing detrimental overall. The movie makes it clear early on that the Man is the Boy's father, which is left ambiguous for a good chunk of the novel. On the other hand, while the book never explicitly names the cause of the apocaplypse, nuclear war is strongly implied. Yet the movie suggests through offhand remarks in the dialogue and recurring earthquakes (not in the book, that I recall) that environmental disaster may be to blame. That could be a reflection of the filmmakers' political agenda, or may have just been necessitated by the budget issues and inability to visualize everything McCarthy wrote.
As bleak and depressing as the movie may be, the novel is a thousand times more so. For example, the film discusses cannibalism, but doesn't actually show it. Some of the things that the characters witness in the book would cause audiences to flee theaters in disgust. Those were removed for obvious commercial reasons.
I hate to be the sort of critic who constantly compares a movie to the book it's based on. In my opinion, the two are separate entities that should be judged on their own merits. However, in this case, while the movie generally captures the original story, that story was never the primary point of the novel. The film doesn't, and can't, replicate the author's use of language to evoke the devastation and despair. Even his visual descriptions (which can be illustrated) are less important than the specific words he uses to conjure them. Short of adding endless amounts of tedious voiceover narration, this is a disconnect where the two media simply cannot meet in this instance.
Taken on its own, the film version of 'The Road' is a modestly compelling post-apocalyptic drama with good performances and an effective sense of atmosphere. However, because it's so focused on such a simple story, it seems to lack much point or purpose.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Road' was distributed theatrically in the U.S. by The Weinstein Company (through its Dimension Films label, which usually specializes in schlocky horror movies). Due to the studio's financial difficulties and general inability to market its films effectively anymore, the movie made very little money and never moved past limited release. Its home video rights have now shifted to Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, which has issued it on Blu-ray.
The disc has five annoying trailers before the main menu.
Director Hillcoat shot 'The Road' in a palette of muted grays, browns, and yellows. The movie has deliberately dim, dingy photography to suit the subject matter. That much is part of the intended visual design of the film, and I won't criticize the Blu-ray's AVC/MPEG-4 transfer for replicating it.
However, even with that noted, the 2.35:1 image is rather weak in detail and has an overly "processed" appearance. Edge ringing artifacts are prevalent in far too many scenes. Whether that's the fault of the film-to-video transfer or the extensive digital grading done to the movie in post production, I can't say for certain. Whatever the cause, the resulting picture quality on this disc is mediocre by high-def standards, even taking the filmmakers' intentions into account.
I would say that the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a bit more impressive than the video quality, but this certainly isn't a showy mix. The film's sound design is very quiet overall, with an emphasis on low-key music and eerie ambience. Dialogue is sometimes so low that you'll strain to hear it clearly.
Other than the dialogue intelligibility, which really isn't that severe a problem, fidelity on the whole is adequate. Sound effects are crisp. Gun shots are clear and bracing. The track does, on occasion, build up to moments of surprisingly effective power. The earthquakes are loud and shattering. The low-end gets a decent workout when called for. But scenes like those are few and far between.
Bonus features on the disc are pretty sparse.
Although 'The Road' doesn't capture the literary genius of the book it's based on, the film is well-made and dramatically interesting enough to be worth at least a rental. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray is nothing special in terms of video quality or supplements.