The big freeze, global warming, economic meltdown, terror plots: with so many calamities currently besetting us, it’s no wonder that the cinema is cashing in on the prevailing mood that apocalypse is just around the corner. In the last few months we’ve seen everything from volcanoes, earthquakes and giant tsunamis in 2012 to the undead running amok in Zombieland.
Those movies played the end of the world for vicarious thrills or belly laughs; John Hillcoat’s The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel, denies us these pleasures. The sensation this harrowing film evokes in the viewer is one that feels far more appropriate for a story dealing with catastrophe – gut-clenching dread
Cleaving faithfully to McCarthy’s book, The Road is set in the US a few years after an unspecified apocalypse has devastated the planet. We never learn what caused the disaster, but its effects are everywhere apparent as we follow the progress of a father and his young son (played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they traverse a grim, grey, blighted landscape where no plants or animals survive.
As the pair trudge southwards across the barren land, hauling their possessions in a supermarket trolley, their encounters with other human survivors are fearful and suspicious, even when the other person is as harmless as the elderly, near-blind man (Robert Duvall) they meet at one stage on the road.
A would-be thief (played by Michael Kenneth Williams, best known as The Wire’s Omar Little) is a brief threat, but real danger comes from bands of roaming cannibals, figures so terrifying that they make most other post-apocalyptic screen villains, such as Eddie Izzard’s bad guy in the recent TV adaptation of The Day of the Triffids, look almost benign by comparison.
The only glimmer of hope The Road affords is the tender, trusting relationship between father and son, which is superbly conveyed by Mortensen (I can’t imagine any actor better suited to the role) and Smit-McPhee. They embody humanity’s better qualities, our good side, which makes the moral compromises the father finds himself making in order to survive as the story advances all the more troubling. The Road isn’t easy to watch, but if recent disaster movies have been too frivolous for you, this is definitely the film to see.
On general release from 8th January.
To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.