The first thing you notice is that there's too much music. Nick Cave's intrusive score feels pushy and overstated - the opposite of the eerie silence Cormac McCarthy achieved in the hushed pages of his novel about a father and son wandering a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Fans of The Road have been awaiting the movie, originally due last November, with equal parts anticipation and dread. Unlike McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, originally conceived as a screenplay with a driving, unstoppable narrative, The Road is largely plotless: Almost nothing actually happens. But the novel's end-of-the-world scenario and shattering emotional impact still felt ideal for film - so long as the project was handled by people who grasped the greatness of the novel lurking beneath McCarthy's spare prose.
So that relentless score, combined with the awful trailers that played in theaters earlier this year, initially confirms fears that director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) and screenwriter Joe Penhall have taken a superficial reading of McCarthy's novel. Gradually, though, the film changes your mind. The Road still feels like an adaptation of a better, more profound work. But the filmmakers capture enough of the book's essence - and the power of its knockout, transcendent ending - to more than justify the movie's existence.
The Road unfolds in an ashen, barren United States years after the bombs fell. Animals are long dead; the few remaining trees stand dried out and charred. Almost nothing green or brown or blue - nature's colors - exists. Even though everything is gray, cold, crumbling and rotting, some people still prowl, mostly in packs.
Cannibalism, prevalent in this world in which there's nothing left to eat, is the reason an unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) so fiercely guards the two bullets left in his revolver: One for him; the other for his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), in case they should be captured by predators before they reach the sea. In brief flashbacks, we get glimpses of the man's life with his wife (Charlize Theron) before and after the apocalypse. But only glimpses. All that matters now is his son. "If he is not the word of God," the man thinks, "then God never spoke."
Like the novel, The Road essentially is a work of horror, and Hillcoat does not shy away from depicting most (though not all) of the extreme violence McCarthy describes. But although The Road is, in premise, not all that different from countless zombie pictures in which survivors must navigate a world overrun by flesh-eaters, Hillcoat never allows the tale's genre trappings to overcome his characters.
The most indelible moments in The Road are not the gruesome scenes but small, telling exchanges among people trying to make sense of their new reality, such as the father and son's encounter with an old blind man (Robert Duvall) who is basically waiting to die or their discovery of a family that had committed suicide. "Why?" asks the uncomprehending boy. "You know why," his father answers.
Mortensen is good at capturing the man's ferocious determination to survive in a world that has given up. But 12-year-old Smit-McPhee is even better as the boy, born after the apocalypse, who has never known a different life. The movie ultimately rests on his wide eyes and small frame, and Smit-McPhee's performance in the devastating final scene propels the film past its flaws. Like McCarthy's book, The Road is dark, bleak and nightmarish but also stirring and beautiful and optimistic: As long as life remains, the movie argues, there is always hope.