|DADDY NIHILISM’S STORY HOUR: Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee.|
In the many voice-overs that clutter The Road—all of them signal that director John Hillcoat doesn’t feel enough confidence in his ability to visually convey Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic philosophy to the audience—Viggo Mortensen explains a theory about dreams. At the end of the world, he says, nightmares are a good sign: They mean you haven’t given up fighting. Dreaming of good things, especially happy memories, means you’re in trouble.
I don’t know what it says about this stage in American empire that every other Hollywood movie, from 2012 to Zombieland, is a vision of a horrible, hopeless future (or that the other half are films about pubescent vampires). But The Road should just about sate the appetite for destruction. The vast preponderance of the picture’s two hours consists of Mortensen trying to decide if this is the moment when he will shoot his son in the head, so he won’t be taken by cannibals. Walking toward South Carolina past midnight blasts of napalm, Mortensen’s unnamed hero explains to his kid (Kodi Smit-McPhee) that the brave new foodless world is divided into “good people” and “bad people”—which may seem too simple a formulation, until you consider that the bad people like to eat the good people for lunch, alive. In the film’s spookiest sequence, the duo takes refuge in a plantation house, only to discover the residents are storing humans in the basement and consuming them limb by limb, like a Christmas honey ham to nibble off from time to time. What I’m saying is, see this movie after you have Thanksgiving dinner.
The Road is admirable in its refusal to soft-sell its horrors, but the unrelenting hopelessness is hard to take—or take quite seriously. (In flashbacks, Charlize Theron pleads with hubby Mortensen for the family to commit suicide: “Other families are doing it!”) The movie is also marred by odd choices, like Mortensen’s decision to talk like an 1840s gold prospector, or the strangest product placement for Vitaminwater I have ever seen. Individual elements are very fine—Hillcoat, the director of The Proposition, has brought along fellow Aussies Nick Cave and Warren Ellis for a mournful score, and Robert Duvall shines as a blind coot gobbling fruit cocktail—but the project feels too cautious to put its own stamp on McCarthy’s storytelling. Then the beachfront climax arrives, and pretty well betrays the tone of everything that came before, settling for the kind of gooey sentiment you could get in a movie without rampant cannibalism. Good dream or bad, The Road feels like a surrender. R.
SEE IT: The Road opens Wednesday at Fox Tower.