Just before the kid was born, the world burned. We don't know why, and the characters don't talk about it -- perhaps they don't quite know themselves, or maybe they've decided that it no longer matters. The Boy's universe is grey, full of ash, dust, and the ruins of a civilization he never saw. This is all he knows. His mother, seeing no point in going on, killed herself shortly after his birth. She was not alone. Many of those who didn't take their own lives were soon murdered by the desperate and hungry.
Skip ahead nine or ten years. The kid and his father wander the barren roadways heading south toward the coast for no clear reason other than that it gives them a tangible goal toward which to strive. (And there's always the hope that the ocean will be something other than gray.) Every day is a knock-down, drag-out fight for survival. They run, hide, starve, and fight off attackers who want their food, or their clothes, or, at one point, their flesh.
I set the stage like this not to horrify you or to gross you out, but to give you a sense of the relentless, pervasive grimness of The Road -- and then to turn around and say that The Road may be the most profoundly optimistic and life-affirming film you will see this year. Those who have read Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name won't be surprised by this. John Hillcoat's faithful, near-perfect adaptation beautifully captures McCarthy's synthesis of all-encompassing darkness and enduring hope.
The father (Viggo Mortensen) and the son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are driven -- kept alive, really -- by different things. For the Man, the Boy is all that matters. "The child is my warrant," he tells us in mournful voiceover. "And if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke."
What keeps the Boy going is the notion that, in a world of murderers and thieves, he and his dad are the Good Guys. They're "carrying the fire." When they pass friendly, desperate wanderers, the Boy pesters his father to donate some food. When dad decides to strip and abandon a man who tried to steal their possessions, the boy begs him to stop. It is here that McCarthy and Hillcoat begin to reveal their fundamentally positive view of human nature. The murderers and thieves are trying to recapture, by whatever means necessary, remnants of the world they used to know. The Boy is more or less a clean slate, and his empathy and kindness are instinctive, innate.
The Road is unremittingly focused on the Man and the Boy. This is not really an "apocalyptic thriller," though it has genre elements, and plenty of suspense. The father will do anything to protect his son, including putting a bullet in the Boy's brain if it comes to that. The Boy is the father's sole reason for carrying on, but the reverse is not true. It's really the Boy who's "carrying the fire." He is humanity, in every sense.
Viggo Mortensen is excellent here, but The Road is anchored by Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose performance is staggering in both its force and its surprising, artful understatement. I don't know how it's even possible to get a performance like this in a role this demanding and intense (he's in all but a few scenes) from an 11-year old boy -- who, by the way, is from Australia and is all the while doing a beautiful American accent. The 11-year olds I've known couldn't sit still for long enough to watch a movie, never mind make one. (An aside: Smit-McPhee was awesome during the post-screening Q&A, too, quickly improvising a charming answer to a rambling non-question from moderator Ken Burns.)
The ending, which brought me to tears, is not merely optimistic or hopeful -- it is uplifting, and the uplift is earned. The movie is a moving gesture of faith in our species. Doomsaying about the fate of mankind is as old as civilization: wrath of the Gods, nuclear war, global warming, what have you. The Road insists that we're going to be okay -- and I think I believe it.