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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.

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(Discounted Paperback (with CD) from Amazon)
. "The Road"

Cormac McCarthy isn't an author who's going to win any awards for light, bantering subject matter. But this mythic vision of a post-apocalyptic world, following his "No Country For Old Men" (published 2005), is about as bleak a concept as has ever colored his pen. In its one-note trudge of a father and son clinging to life across miles of appocolyptic desolation and human horror, one might not have thought it material for a movie. Or, at least not one with much commercial promise. After having seen the resulting product, both my respect for the work and my expectations for its limited prospects remain intact.

Thanks to the fact that cinema artists live for challenges, this second McCarthy book (of 2006) to be adapted for the screen features Viggo Mortensen ("Eastern Promises", who uses the opportunity to explore the barely imaginable stress of constant fear.

Working dilligently from the novel, screenwriter Joe Penhall turns in a remarkablly faithful adaptation, respectably directed by Canadian John Hillcoat ("The Proposition," 2005). Penhall did it, presumably, without feedback or contribution from the originator, which stands in contrast to the author's presence on the Coen brother's "No Country..." set.

Penhall's only sugar-coating extras are the father's flashbacks to his former life with his beautiful wife (Charlize Theron) from the time she gave birth to their son (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who, I swear, bears a resemblance to her) to the day she left them to end the fears she couldn't cope with. These images provide a series of reminders of what the colors of life once looked like, the more to emphasize the contrast to the grey reality that replaced them.

What with the importance of locations to the grim vision of the story, Hillcoat went to great pains to find them, locating at the site of an abandoned mine in Pennsylvania, in Louisiana and, presumably for the beach scenes, Oregon. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe's desaturation further abets the McCarthy vision, but for an idyllic earlier scene with Theron in a garden of flowers under a blue sky. Hmmm, remember those?

Dad, by this time, is a survivalist who knows a thing or two about adapting what he has available to a particular need. He's also quick to hide his eleven-year-old and their provisions from any kind of contact with unknown and therefore highly dangerous gangs of thieves and cannibals that wander the roads in search of prey. Father assures his son that, yes, they are the good guys, calming one compartment of the boy's closet of fears.

Our man possesses a pistol with two bullets, one for his son, should he be threatened by capture and a horrible death, one for himself. He instructs the boy in how to use the weapon to take his own life should he be facing a merciless destiny. Yet, in a first contact with such a loathsome group, he's forced to announce his presence to them with a gunshot--killing the zombie-like monster who grabs his son. Such are the instinctive adaptations to desperation.

Running for their lives, weak and emaciated to the bone, they manage to ellude the band of marauders searching the woods for them. The gun, now down to a single load, becomes an outsize symbol of ebbing hope which pervades the drama. With their sense of security cut in half, they continue southward, toward warmer climes, even as landslides, fires and eruptions suggest the dying of the planet.

Starvation shadows them closely and, as the food dwindles, death from the lack of it is a third companion. They encounter others. An old man (Robert Duvall); a thief (Michael K. Williams); an archer and, at the end, a veteran (Guy Pearce).

Through the ups and downs of the trek--finding enough food to restore their strength in one sequence, and taking an arrow in father's leg in another--the constants in the emotional texture of the story are fear in every step they take, and the love father shows for the boy, despite arguments and their differences in how they treat others.

To convey this, Mortensen kisses the boy repeatedly but, oddly, it seems like overcompensation for the weak semblance of a true connection between them. It's Mortensen's struggle to create and maintain a credible bond, but it seems as laborious as the survival struggle of the plot due to Smit-McPhee's acting limitations. The boy has little charm.

This is for those who can stomach horrors of a graphic, somewhat realistic kind. Understand it not so much as a prediction or a warning, but as an experiment in which to study what humans with whom we can identify might be reduced to in a world taken away from them, replaced by the hostile environmental aftermath of a former civilization. What manner of mankind will survive? The film hints at an answer, but not necessarily the answer.

Despite the carps, a receptiveness to this material will pay off in tension and suspense, pushing you off The Road in a state of emotional exhaustion.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as father and son.
Surviving in an apocalytic world.

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