'The Road'

A bleak odyssey through a post-apocalyptic landscape that falls dispiritingly short on every front.

This “Road” leads nowhere. If you’re going to adapt a book like Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 bestseller, you’re pretty much obliged to make a terrific film or it’s not worth doing — first because expectations are high, and second, because the picture needs to make it worth people’s while to sit through something so grim. Except for the physical aspects of this bleak odyssey by a father and son through a post-apocalyptic landscape, this long-delayed production falls dispiritingly short on every front. Showing clear signs of being test-screened and futzed with to death, the Dimension release may receive a measure of respect in some quarters but is very, very far from the film it should have been, spelling moderate to tepid B.O. prospects after big fest preems.

Even more than “No Country for Old Men,” with which the Coen brothers showed what is possible artistically and commercially with a McCarthy novel onscreen, “The Road” reads extremely cinematically. Filled almost entirely by spare but vivid physical descriptions of a decimated United States in its death throes after an unexplained catastrophe, and with limited dialogue, the book serves up images and tense situations that practically leap from the page as potential movie scenes.

Some things were obvious: The film’s style needed to be as terse, exacting, stripped-down, tough and precise as McCarthy’s prose style. The picture also should have been shocking, haunting and, at the end, deeply moving. As it is, director John Hillcoat (“The Proposition”) and lenser Javier Aguirresarobe have come up with some arresting scorched-earth vistas captured on locations in Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Oregon, but have missed the bigger picture almost entirely.

It’s a survival story in the most elemental possible way, as an unnamed man and boy, about 11, trudge daily through a dark world of barren forests with falling trees, torched towns and vandalized stores, empty roads and depleted fields, in search of food and shelter, all the while taking care to avoid roving gangs searching for defenseless humans to be turned into slaves or, more likely, dinner.

The man (Viggo Mortensen) has a revolver with two bullets in it, then only one. As far too many flashbacks of his pre-catastrophe life reveal, he’s not a military or survivalist type, and he had a gorgeous wife (Charlize Theron) until she couldn’t stand it anymore and took off. But his love for his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has made him resourceful and resolute despite the utter lack of long-term prospects, and he continually responds to the youngster’s despairing questions with answers that insist upon perseverance.

For reasons that remain unclear even after they arrive there, they are walking toward the sea, and dreadful sights abound along the way: skeletons, rotting bodies, naked prisoners locked in dark basements like animals to be butchered (the book’s two most ghastly images have been dispensed with, however). Occasionally, they chance upon an abandoned house with a stock of canned food (Coca-Cola has no problem surviving the apocalypse), clean blankets and clothes.

The drama is one little genre step away from being an outright zombie movie, something that’s much more evident onscreen, with its drooling, crusty-toothed aggressors and live humans with missing limbs; memories of “Night of the Living Dead” unavoidably advance in all the scenes in which the man and boy take refuge in a house, where they must contend with unfriendly marauders.

But Hillcoat, who played with heavy violence in “The Proposition” and made some of it stick, shows no talent for or inclination toward setting up a scene here; any number of sequences in “The Road” could have been very suspenseful if built up properly, but Hillcoat, working from a script by Joe Penhall, just hopscotches from scene to scene in almost random fashion without any sense of pacing or dramatic modulation.

Dialogue that should have been directed with an almost Pinteresque sense of timing is delivered without meaningful shadings, principally by two actors who have no chemistry together. Unfortunately, Mortensen lacks the gravitas to carry the picture; suddenly resembling Gabby Hayes with his whiskers and wayward hair, the actor has no bottom to him, and his interactions with Smit-McPhee, whom one can believe as Theron’s son but not Mortensen’s, never come alive. Tellingly, both thesps are better in their individual scenes with other actors; Mortensen gets into it with Robert Duvall, who plays an old coot met along the road, while Smit-McPhee registers a degree of rapport with Guy Pearce, practically unrecognizable at first as another wanderer. Generally, the boy’s readings are blandly on the nose.

Scraps of narration by Mortensen seem like unnecessary afterthoughts, while the preponderance of scenes featuring the wife is explainable only because Theron’s presence needed to be justified by more screen time. Score by longtime Hillcoat collaborator Nick Cave and Warren Ellis borders on the treacly, softening the tone and further conventionalizing a film that should have gone the other direction toward something harsh and daring.

The Road

Production

A Dimension Films release presented with 2929 Prods. of a Nick Wechsler and Chockstone Pictures production. Produced by Wechsler, Paula Mae Schwartz, Steve Schwartz. Executive producers, Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban, Marc Butan, Rudd Simmons. Directed by John Hillcoat. Screenplay, Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Javier Aguirresarobe; editor, Jon Gregory; music, Nick Cave, Warren Ellis; production designer, Chris Kennedy; art director, Gershon Ginsburg; set decorator, Robert Greenfield; costume designer, Margot Wilson; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Edward Tise; sound designer, Leslie Shatz; supervising sound editor, Robert Jackson; re-recording mixers, Todd Beckett, Chris David; assistant director, John Nelson; additional editor, Craig Wood; casting, Francine Maisler. Reviewed at Sunset screening room, West Hollywood, Aug. 27, 2009. (In Venice Film Festival -- competing; Telluride Film Festival; Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

The Man - Viggo Mortensen The Boy - Kodi Smit-McPhee Wife - Charlize Theron Old Man - Robert Duvall The Veteran - Guy Pearce Veteran's Wife - Molly Parker The Thief - Michael K. Williams The Gang Member - Garret Dillahunt

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