Based on the well-known Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name The Road takes Viggo Mortensen, drops him in hell, and lets him wander around for a couple of hours. What’s surprising about The Road is how little actually happens. The film is an examination of what life might be like after a civilization ending apocalypse, and if you’ve seen I Am Legend or Zombieland you’re probably expecting CGI monsters, heavy weaponry, sassy one-liners, and wild car chases. There’s none of that in The Road. The plain truth is that life after the end of life isn’t much fun and, you’re probably better off putting a bullet in your head.
Viggo plays a father, whose name we never know since he never meets anyone to whom it would be worth giving it. With him is his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a boy born shortly after the vague, world ending disaster which the film never explains or shows. His boy appears to be around ten, which means the initial shock of apocalypse is long past and the planet seems to have settled in to being a dying, ruined husk. We see only the aftereffects of what happened, never the event itself. Everything is ash.
There is no life, no food, and the great fear of the few isolated good men left breathing is cannibalism. Many of the survivors committed suicide and corpses are a common sight. Viggo staggers across that landscape with his young son in tow, headed south not because they believe they’ll find a haven, but because the winters up north are no longer survivable and they believe that it may at least be slightly warmer closer to the equator. That’s what passes for hope in The Road. Hope has died along with everything else.
Along the road south they’ll encounter few people. The few they do encounter may want to eat them and should that fail to happen they’ll likely simply starve to death. And so they stumble onward in a quiet, dreary film where a man toils, his health failing, to keep his son alive for reasons that have long since faded into nothingness. Viggo’s performance is brilliant, a man who dreams at night of a better life and a loving wife (Charlize Theron), and awakens to a world where his son can look forward to nothing other than a mercifully early death. The anguish in his ever weakening heart is reflected in his step, as he trudges forward wishing for release but afraid to die.
And that’s it. That’s all there is to The Road. Flashback scenes to better times are, perhaps, meant to provide a relief from the desolation the rest of the movie lives in but they aren’t bright enough or long enough to do other than make it all seem that much more dire. It’s stripped down and bare, bleak to a fault and drab past the point of sanity. But it’s also smart, honest, and brutally real. It’s a movie about family and what that truly means when there’s nothing else. In that, perhaps there’s something beautiful but The Road is so wrapped in cinders and dedicated to relentless realism that it’s easy to miss it. You won’t find anything entertaining in The Road but maybe you’ll find something else.