I didn’t expect to like this film. From the premise I expected it to be an either depressing or a just another pretentious genre movie set after the apocalypse. After all, who could enjoy watching a father and son wander around a devastated Earth for two hours and slowly starving to death? Turns out that The Road is a bit more clever and interesting than that; it’s actually a great character study and story about what people will do to survive in desperate times.
As the movie begins, the world has ended and things are only going to get worse. Some unknown disaster has blocked out the sun, and now “every day only gets greyer”. Nearly all of the plant and animal life in the world has died, leaving only a few human survivors to desperately scrape a living out of canned food and, frequently, each other. The two unnamed protagonists, billed as “the boy” and “the man” are making a desperate journey to the coast in an attempt to find food and company which won’t eat and/or rape them.
Vigo Mortesen puts in one of his best performances as “the man”. He practically radiates exhaustion and pain; his entire world has been stripped away, and the only thing he really cares about now is “the boy”, played with endearing innocence by …. The supporting cast emanate exhausted gloom; even the cannibals seem more depressed than malicious. In contrast to Hollywood disaster movies like The Day After Tommorrow, everyone dresses like a hobo, everyone seems weary, everyone is covered with more mud than the peasants in Monty Python and there is no magical McGuffin to resolve the plot. Just a boy and a man. Making their way through the world, such as it is. Trying to make the best of things.
There are terrific scenes as the characters make their way through the stricken landscape, which resembles America after a huge forest fire or ground zero at Hiroshima. It’s a testament to the acting and direction how much you want the boy and the man to succeed when they briefly find refuge in an abandoned bomb shelter. This becomes even more gut wrenching later on when it turns out that they didn’t need to abandon it in the first place.
One of the repeated motifs of this film is whether the characters can call themselves “good” when they do the things that they need to do to survive. At one point, Vigo Mortesan’s character strips a man who stole their supplies naked, then leaves him for dead. Was that a good thing to do? At another, a misunderstanding results in a close-range shooting battle and the deaths of two of the last surviving members of the human race. Who is the bad guy there? The cannibals are truly horrible, but with the whole world apparently dying anyway, how far can you really blame them? The pre-teen boy wants to help everyone they meet along the road; later evidence in the film suggests that he may have been right, but the situation is left for the individual viewer to decide.
In the end, The Road is a truly haunting and touching experience and a brilliantly made and shot film. More importantly, it has what most apocalyptic films lack; a touch of humanity to balance out the melodrama and spectacle of the end of the world.