First of all, preview trailers for The Road are grossly misleading, cobbling together the few frames of anything dramatic happening in this relentlessly bleak film to create an illusion of excitement. Caveat emptor; buyer beware.
There's certainly a measure of esoteric artistry to John Hillcoat's ponderous adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The key word is "esoteric," meaning only those readers left shattered by McCarthy's book are likely to peer beyond the drabness to find something worth the admission price. This isn't 2012, folks, and there's something noble about that.
But exciting? Entertaining? Enlightening? Never.
The Road follows nameless father and son on their hopeless trek through a post-apocalyptic landscape where sunlight and botanical life are things of the past. It's a masterpiece in that regard, with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe draining the screen of all but pallid colors; if the world looks like this after whatever kills it, we're better off dead.
The desolation is explained only with vague references to "the fire," so project as much as you wish. There's a lot of time to wonder about such things, or muse about the occasional cogent expression from the Man (Viggo Mortensen) in the laziest storytelling technique, voiceover narration. "The child is my warrant," the Man says. "If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke."
Fair enough. The guy loves his son and will do anything to protect him — even if protection means teaching the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) how to cock a pistol and stick it in his mouth. You know, just in case. That would be swifter than starvation, or becoming a means for cannibals resembling extras from Deliverance to avoid starving. Don't let that c-word fool you, either; The Road is too high-minded to depict that taboo, just a few gnawed corpses.
From that sentence springs the key reason why The Road is destined to be overrated. Slagging the movie will be considered a vote favoring frivolous cinema: If you want your apocalypse with a side order of gore, go see Zombieland. This is Art with a capital A; it's good for you, with Hillcoat as the nanny doling out bitter medicine without even a teaspoon of sugar.
Even so, Mortensen's portrayal must be lauded, an egoless feat stripping away every ounce of strength in his appearance and emotions. It's almost entirely internalized; except for those annoying voiceovers, he'd have little to say at all. Yet we get a deep feel for the Man's obsession with his son's survival.
Charlize Theron isn't as lucky as Woman, appearing in dreary flashbacks until making the movie's best decision by wandering off. Smit-McPhee has earned inexplicable praise for his blank slate performance. Of all the guest ghouls, only Robert Duvall makes an impression as Old Man; to what end is debatable.
Great, depressing movies like The Road attempts to be must leave audiences with something resonant, a reason to have endured the grimness. Instead, the only thing I thought about after this film was a bouncy song that could've made the same points in less time: Teach Your Children by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Yes, that's snarky but a better movie wouldn't allow such thoughts to occur.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.