Here’s a tip: If you see one austerely hopeless movie this year about a father and son wandering through a junk-strewn postapocalyptic wilderness as they struggle to fight ?off demons of fear, madness, and starvation, not to mention roving bands of cannibalistic killers, then by all means make that movie The Road. In this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s revered 2006 novel, Viggo Morten-sen, caked in grime, plays the father with a fierce physicality and tremulous woundedness. The film has one other thing going for it: Visually, it’s one of the most spookily convincing, least ”movieish” visions of a bombed-out wasteland future I’ve ever seen. (It’s never stated that there was a nuclear war, a meteor, or whatever, but there’s an ashy deadness to everything on screen.) The wreckage and twisted clutter, some of it spectacular, doesn’t seem as if it was planted there by a set designer; it’s an organic part of the landscape. This debris has integrity, almost the way the ruined city in Full Metal Jacket did.
Yet The Road, for all its vivid desolation, remains a curiously unmoving experience — or maybe not so curious, given that nothing really happens in it. In the novel, McCarthy played off postapocalyptic Hollywood thrillers, and so he gave you the heady feeling that you were seeing a movie unfold on the page. Yet he brought off that feat without much action; the backdrop was grand, the emotions interior and refined. That’s a problem when The Road is done as a movie: It’s like a zombie thriller drowning in tastefully severe art-house gloom. The darkest note in the story — it’s what no conventional sci-fi blockbuster would dare to include — is the Mortensen character’s despairing realization that he must be prepared at any moment to fire a bullet into his beloved son should they be captured, since the bandits who roam the land would rape and kill the boy if he didn’t. That’s a haunting thing to live with, and saucer-eyed Kodi Smit-McPhee plays the son with touching half-aware innocence. But that’s not enough to save the movie from its creeping inertness.
The Road was originally set to come out last year, and in one sense the decision to delay its release was karmically right, since (like 2012) it addresses the current mood of nerve-jangling anxiety and doom. Yet the timing also works against the film. There’s enough foreboding in America right now to make sitting through a movie such as The Road seem like one more heavy burden that, frankly, no one needs. B-