What’s in an apocalypse? A fastidious radio listener recently contacted the BBC to complain about the fast-and-loose use of the term ‘post-apocalyptic’, explaining that as the apocalypse is the end of the world, films which feature any kind of hope, or light, or human civilisation can’t be defined as such. Well, The Road is post-apocalyptic, in this bleakest and most stringent sense.
It’s clear from the voice-over of Viggo Mortensen’s desperate wanderer – known simply as The man – that following an unspecified cataclysm, the world is not merely changed but dying. No animals have survived, nor crops, and what people remain steal and scavenge and even hunt their own kind for food. In the midst of this grey, dwindling oblivion there is The Boy – The Man’s reason for surviving, for pushing on towards the hope of the coast, and the last spark of humanity in an otherwise cold world.
Sounds like a laugh, right? Well, no – but it is deeply affecting and wonderfully accomplished. Crucial to this is the warmth and tenderness of the father-son relationship, which is at the centre of both this film and the Pulitzer-winning Cormac McCarthy book to which it remains remarkably faithful. Mortensen is in career-best form as the ragged father, an aching mix of weariness and urgent, protective hope.
Also impressive is Kodi Smit-McPhee’s performance as The Boy, which remains natural and heart-rendingly innocent (all the while, the otherwise scant extras inform us, disguising his natural Australian accent).
Then there is the world itself. John Hillcoat made his name with Australian Western, The Proposition, and while Westerns have fed off the rich myths of America’s nation-founding, here the director uses ash-swept widescreen compositions of those same plains and mountains to show the country’s death. It’s desolate and, following saturated media coverage of recent disasters like 9/11 and hurricane Katrina, especially raw – with Hillcoat’s huddling, silhouetted figures shuffling past crumbling diners and through rubble-lined streets.
So it’s a great shame that, past a solid hi-def transfer, the disc doesn’t come close to matching the achievements of the film. Two promo-puff featurettes, both made primarily from mix-and-match snippets of cast and crew interviews, are insubstantial. Why not include the long-form versions of these chats and offer viewers a meatier diet?
An intense and haunting film with the merest slip of hope and humanity, presented in an extras package that’s just as desolate.