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The Mass Media

How Far Would You go to Survive in a Post -Apocalyptic World?

Forget about vampires. I’m calling end-of-the-world movies the new genre-du-jour. From “Children of Men” to “Terminator Salvation,” and “Wall*E” to “2012,” to not to mention the recent glut of zombie flicks, Hollywood has had apocalypse on the brain for years. Enter “The Road,” John Hilcoat’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s end of times fable. It isn’t a disaster movie per se, since we never find out exactly what turned our world into a charred, grayed out wasteland. Instead, “The Road” imagines what would happen if the light of civilization were to go out, and what it means to be human in a dearth of faith and an absence of authority.

Like the novel, the film has the shape of a parable, following a nameless father and son as they slog their way through a desolate apocalyptic landscape towards the southern coast, in the film, of Florida. Viggo Mortensen strikes a perfect balance between an intense resolve driven by his zealous adoration for his kid, and a desperate fatalism that befits, well, the end of days. Kodi Smit-McKee is great as a bewildered kid-at-the-end-of-the-world, if a bit bland at the get-go. Towns lie in ruin, and twisted highways, abandoned farmhouses, and looted convenience stores serve as a backdrop for what amounts to a story about moral education.

As the man teaches the boy what it means to be a person – to “carry the fire” inside of him – Hillcoat feels out the edges of the things we can and can’t do while still pretending to some semblance of humanity. Because, like in McCarthy’s story, it’s easy to transgress. Since the film is largely populated by bands of robbers and murderers, human hunters stalking the horizon, and generally safest to assume the worst in people. While no less horrifying for it, Hillcoat renders this world so well that we can understand the pitch of desperation that would lead people to abandon their humanity in order to simply survive.

Which brings us to the film’s grim conceit. Cannibalism is the line in the sand between the good guys and the bad guys. As the film begins, the man and the boy carry a gun and two bullets – not for defense, but rather to kill themselves and be spared the absolute horror of capture. Hillcoat does a tremendous job carrying us along with this brutal calculus. One pleasant surprise is Charlize Theron’s turn as the doleful woman in the film. As in McCarthy’s novel, the woman stands in for the temptation of giving up, of yearning for something more than just survival. Suicide here is if, nothing else, painless. Hillcoat’s decision to flesh out this part of the story helps set up the puzzling difference between then and now, and to underscore the fact that, in the film’s world, surviving itself is a difficult decision.

McCarthy recently had some luck with a film adaptation, and with “The Road” it just might become a trend. While Hillcoat’s adaptation has less bravura, perhaps, than the Coen Brothers’ take on “No Country for Old Men,” the willfully plodding script and washed out palette serve the austerity of McCarthy’s book well. I can’t help but wish that more of the novel’s lyricism could have found its way in somehow or another. McCarthy’s book was sprinkled with small revelations, many of which have gone missing from the film, which helped punctuate and give meaning to what is, by design, a monotonous trek. Mortensen’s limited voice-over does some of this work, and it seems that the music was intended to evoke some sort of pastoral majesty in this grim world. But while the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis sounded good on paper, and is indeed lovely, it’s perhaps more precious than the film either needs or earns.

During a passage of reprieve near the middle of the film, while he’s enjoying the spoils of a disappeared civilization, Mortensen’s character says to the boy, “You must think I’m from another world.” Hillcoat, in the end, makes us understand the bleak world of “The Road” all too well. “The Road” is a difficult, bold, and mostly successful film, that probably beats the hell out of the other end-of-the-world movie in theaters this week.