"An uplifiting journey for the soul!"
"A non-stop laugh-a-minute riot!"
"A rollercoaster ride of action and thrills!"
None of those things will be on the poster for The Road. Barring the Weinsteins having a really keen sense of irony. Even then, this wouldn't be the movie for it.
Running nearly two hours long, The Road is the most beautiful way I've ever had my soul crushed on film. Based on Cormac McCarthy's much-loved novel, this is not the way you bring your spirits up - unless you're of the "hey, it could be worse" school of mood-improvement.
Civilization has ended. There's no explanation as to how or why, but it's done. Wandering this post-apocalyptic world is a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). They walk "the road". It's a desolate landscape - no vegetation, no wildlife, and barely any other people. Some have banded together, forming roving, violent, cannibalistic gangs. Others have holed up in compounds, doing heinous things to survive. Most have died or moved on. Everyone is just trying to survive.
Through flashbacks we learn that the man used to be married to Charlize Theron, who questioned their need to survive after everything went to hell. But the man survives because he knows it's what is right for his newborn son. Now, years later, they continue to push on, and to "carry the fire" in their chests. They strive to be the "good guys", but the man's moral stability wavers as circumstances dictate. If not for the boy and his inherent child's clarity, we get the feeling he'd have long since become as savage as some of those they encounter.
There are moments of savagery, moments of pain, and moments of tension and fear. The pair's existence often rests on the fine line between salvation and chaos, and at times circumstance is all that saves them. There are scant few moments of hope. The man has lost the ability to trust anyone but themselves, and carries two bullets in his gun for the obvious reason. The boy has known no other existence, but yearns for company, for people, and for sanity in a world gone mad.
There is no climax. There is no happy ending. There is no redemption. This is a movie that forces you to ask the question, "what would I do?" and provides no easy answers. Scene after scene is heart-wrenching loneliness and fear. Even the ending, which offers an iota of hope, is nearly irrelevant in that world, and seems almost cruel when hindsight is applied. This is the most brutally realistic vision of a world on the brink of extinction I've seen. There are no aliens, no creatures, no plagues or other blockbuster-level disasters. There's just... nothing. Even the old trope of the real monsters being humans is reduced in size by the fact that the gangs, the cannibals, the "bad guys" are just as unimportant in the broad strokes as the "good guys" when you're fighting over the scraps of mankind.
From a technical viewpoint, this is a masterful film. Beautiful in its starkness (think Oregon and Pennsylvanian wilderness winters as the backdrop), it never deviates from the world of its two protagonists. Never does the camera pull back to show how others are coping, only those they encounter. There is no radio squawking in the background talking about the situation in Russia. The universe belongs only to a man and a boy. The existentialist debate on this alone could take awhile. The movie is tight, and the reasoning of the actions we see sound - with perhaps one exception that bothered me, but I suppose desperation can lead to poor choices. Seeing as it's one of the more disturbing scenes in the movie, I'll say no more.
If you've seen director John Hillcoat's most recent previous work, The Proposition, then you know his capacity for bringing sparsely populated environments to the screen and showing the depravity of those who live in them. He surpasses that here. Bringing Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' (not that one, the other one) score into play only adds to the desolation. The Road lets its hopelessness suffuse your soul.
And it's a great film for it.
We watch films to be affected by them. Be it to laugh, cry, reel in terror, or just giggle with childlike mirth, there's no worse movie than one you leave with a shrug. This one sticks. This one forces you to talk to others who have seen it. This one makes you glad that once you leave that theatre, there will be annoying teens and flashing lights outside (okay, maybe not the teens). By reducing the end of the world to the view of two people, McCarthy and Hillcoat have forced us to see it in the widest view imaginable.