Occasionally an actor comes along who can carry a movie on his own, and not just because he is handsome or because he chooses good scripts or works with good directors. Viggo Mortensen is so vastly capable that one could almost believe that his performance as The Father in The Road could stand on its own as a one-man play.
Luckily, Mortensen is joined by the entrancing black and gray pastels of Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography and an excellent supporting cast that includes Kodi Smit-McPhee as The Son and Robert Duvall as a wandering Old Man.
The world has been decimated by nuclear war. Through this post-apocalyptic terrain (that makes the prison in the Shawshank Redemption seem cheery), Father and Son wander south in perpetual fear, starvation and with a heroic determination to survive. All the animals and birds are dead, as are most humans. Roving gangs of cannibals terrorize the bleak landscape. As the film rolls along, we realize that it is their journey, not the destination that matters. They travel ever southward, and though the south might be warmer and the sea might provide escape from this particular nightmare (Europe is obviously no better, just full of different horrors), it is plain to us and to the Father that hope and survival are fueled by purpose, even if the culmination of that purpose is not valuable in itself.
The scenes in which Father must protect his son from immediate danger are the most compelling. It is too bad that director John Hillcoat falls back on clichés for his “bad guys”; the pursuers and cannibals always come off as characters ripped from Mad Max and Deliverance. Yet the frenzied passion generated by Mortensen in these scenes is electric. Every confrontation represents the potential failure of his primary purpose. He will kill to save his son’s life, or kill him to save him from fates worse than death. Death, though, is all that will stop him.
Exposition of pre-disaster life is provided by colorful memory and dream sequences. The scenes are necessary (verbal exposition would have been disastrous) and give us a very important view of what Father has lost. They do suffer from a relatively flat performance from Charlize Theron as the Mother, but for the most part they are suitably short, giving us what we need and no more.
The question that arises over and over is “Why go on living?” The boy discovers a family, swinging by the neck from ropes, in an apparent group suicide. The Mother (unbeknown to the boy) gives up by walking unprotected into the freezing night. Most who still live have become monsters, stealing, raping and resorting to cannibalism. Father, however, has taught the son that they must keep “carrying the fire”, as he taps his heart. It does not seem like the son ever really comprehends what his father means by this, but when he repeats the phrase in the final scenes, we are given to believe that he will grow into an understanding of it.
Perhaps I am a romantic, because I cannot comprehend the idea of killing myself, even in such circumstances. Then again, I’ve never been starving, homeless or chased by cannibals, so what do I know? Anyhow, I keenly felt the Father’s anger and frustration as so many people stopped trying. The Mother’s cowardice in particular is so painful because children signify a hope for the future, a future that would not exist but for the selflessness of those like Father.
This self-sacrifice is the essence of a driving anxiety in the film, the idea of somehow, somewhere getting the boy to safety. If Father can stay alive long enough to give the boy a chance to grow up – perhaps give humanity another chance? – then he has succeeded. Otherwise, why travel? Why not find a bunker and wait for the end to come? Father will not have it.
The film has a bit of clunky dialogue and an ending that is too neat and clean for an otherwise ragged story. More than a couple of times, the Son delivers a line that serves to enlighten us to the Father’s character development (“He’s one of the good guys! You can’t even tell any more!”). This is unfortunate and detracts from Smit-McPhee’s performance. “From the mouths of babes”, yes, but not if it is already an obvious development.
I eagerly anticipate Mortensen’s next project. He seems to be the best choice in Hollywood these days for rugged, challenging characters. We should be grateful that someone of his talent has enough star power to land leading roles.