3 stars (out of 4)
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Kodi Smit-McPheeson Robert Duvall
Director: John Hillcoat
Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes
Industry rating: R for some violence, disturbing images and language
The end, when it comes, may look a lot like this - gray skies shrouding the ash-covered ruins of civilization.
And silence. Not a single child laughing, no dogs barking, no birds or even traffic noise. Just the creaking of dead trees, the rumble as some of them crash to the ground.
Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel "The Road" makes for a bleak movie, and director John Hillcoat doesn't sugar-coat it. This is a post apocalypse almost utterly without hope, a world with no glory or joy in surviving. The parable about clinging to the last slivers of your humanity rings clear. But the stark setting, minimalist plot and plainly named characters make this a hard "Road," if worthwhile, to travel.
Viggo Mortensen is The Man, trekking south across the wasteland of America. His simple goal: to keep his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) alive for another day. They forage through empty houses and abandoned cars - hunting for the last remnants of food in a land where nothing green grows, where no animals survived.
The apocalypse, glimpsed in flashback in one of the movie's most hair-raising moments, was a series of thumps, a flash of light, and The Wife (Charlize Theron) wondering why her husband (Mortensen) is suddenly filling all the sinks and the tub with water. Whatever happened - and we're never told - we see it on her face.
The Man and The Boy's odyssey is largely spent avoiding roving, ruthless bands of cannibals - drawling rednecks willing to do whatever it takes to eat. The Boy, born after the cataclysm, needs reassurance that "we're the good guys," that, as The Man tells him, they're "keeping the flame."
At times The Man almost forgets his humanity, something the son, who has only known this world, must remind him of when they meet struggling strangers (Robert Duvall plays one) on their trek. The Man has a pistol with two bullets - one for each of them should starvation or imminent capture by the cannibals demand it. And he has his memories.
Mortensen breathes life into this faithfully desolate narrative, begging his wife to make it through another day in flashbacks, weeping as he remembers all that's been lost, struggling to pass on something to his son besides the life he's fought for years to preserve. A barn full of hanging bodies is a teachable moment.
"They committed suicide."
"You know why."
Hillcoat, who did the grim Aussie period piece "The Proposition," doesn't flinch, and that's a serious drawback here. "Faithfully grim" is not a lot of people's idea of a good time at the movies.
Dystopian visions of the future have been around since H.G. Wells, so much so that we can naively root for Will Smith to live on in "I Am Legend" or laugh at the new rules for civilization in "Zombieland." But when the bombs fall, the meteor hits or the Mayan calendar's 2012 expiration date proves accurate, it's too much to expect humor or hope.
We may hold out long enough to see the next sunrise, McCarthy suggests. But if people don't pass on their humanity, what will be the point?