Imagine a pristine, lush forest. Imagine the birds chirping in the trees or the sound of a river as it winds through the thicket. Now imagine a wasteland where that forest once stood. If such a contrast evokes feelings of emptiness and morbidity, then imagine a world where almost nothing living exists save for a few stragglers, fighting each moment just to live to get a glimpse of tomorrow. Welcome to the world of “The Road,” the film adapted from the haunting novel by Cormac McCarthy.

“The Road”

At the State Theater
The Weinstein Company

The film is set in a post-apocalyptic time when only a handful of people still survive, and it’s left unclear how the world became the way it is. In the midst of such desolation, a boy (relative newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his father (Viggo Mortensen, “Eastern Promises”) travel southward on a long, empty road. This road is occasionally frequented by gangs of bandits, so both father and son always travel with a wary look behind their shoulders.

More than being robbed of their precious canned goods, the two fear the very real possibility of being eaten themselves. Yes, with plants and animals long gone, cannibalism becomes a looming trend. The only thing keeping the two going is the ostensible hope of finding more “good guys” — survivors like themselves who don’t cannibalize. And if something goes wrong, well, the father carries a pistol with two bullets.

While the job of creating a hopelessly bleak, desecrated environment is certainly a laudable one, the real eye-opener of “The Road” is the chemistry between Mortensen and Smit-McPhee. Their relationship goes beyond father and son into something more meaningful — something more sacred. They need each other to survive. At one point in the movie, Mortensen says his son is his god, and that he will do anything and everything to protect him. The child knows nothing outside the forsaken world in which the two live. Mortensen’s character struggles every day with the options of either trudging onwards with the slim chance of a brighter future or ending his son’s life so that he may never grow up to witness such terrifying times. The dynamic is raw and gut-wrenchingly beautiful.

But ultimately, “The Road” suffers from the predictable rhythm into which it settles as the movie progresses. Any misfortune the two travelers suffer is followed immediately by something fortuitous, which is then followed by misfortune, and so on and so forth. This doesn’t necessarily make the movie overly formulaic, but it does severely dampen the mystery and intrigue of the story when viewers can mostly accurately predict that some boon will come out of a particularly harsh or disturbing scene.

Putting these issues aside, the movie doesn’t do an adequate job of portraying some of the horrors of the world. The book vividly describes certain scenes that highlight the atrocities people can commit when faced with extreme survivalist situations. For a movie intended to reach a mass audience, it’s understandable to exclude some of those ghastly images, but if such is the case, the question of whether “The Road” should have been adapted into a film in the first place remains unanswered. The movie treads a little too cautiously.

Really then, “The Road” is great for those who have not already read the McCarthy novel. And for those who have, at least the outstanding performances by Mortensen and Smit-McPhee echo some of the focal points of the book. The movie isn’t a revolutionary journey, but at least while it lasts, it’s a memorable one, well worth traveling.

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