Cormac McCarthy’s!3{2}”The Road” is Worth Taking, Mostly!3{2}for Viggo Mortensen’s Company

Surviving the end of the world has always been a tricky subject for the movies. The best of them, such as “Glen and Randa,” are marked by a verite amateurism that connects this future world to our own. The worst follow an action hero, such as Tom Cruise in “War of the Worlds,” waltzing across the smoking terrain on an impossible mission that is predestined by genre commandment to succeed. By sticking fairly close to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, “The Road” is something of a unique item, although it bears some kinship with “A Boy and his Dog,” and not only for its literary pedigree.

Like Harlan Ellison’s story, “The Road” suffers in its screen version by having a secondary character who talks too much. In Ellison, it was the dog. Here, it is the boy. On the page, the conversations between the boy and his dog and the son and his father work fine. On screen, such verbalization sinks both characters in literalism. “The Road” has the additional problem in that dogs are better actors than children, and it is difficult to buy the mystical aura that is supposed to surround this character when he is over-played by a preening brat.

But enough of comparisons, and onward to the synopsis. “The Road” follows a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they journey through a dying world where they are hunted by gangs of thieves and cannibals. They are following a map to The Coast, where something remarkable is destined to occur. Periodically, the man pauses to entertain a memory of his now-deceased wife (Charlize Theron). These scenes are designed to provide some relief from the monochromatic journey, but tell us little except that Theron, her Oscar win for “Monster’ notwithstanding, has still quite a bit to learn about acting.

Mortensen, however, is magnificent. He could be marinated in all the foul substances that pollute The Magic Christian’s swimming pool and still come out looking and smelling better than just about any other actor working today. As the story begins, he is a few steps away from death, and his performance is measured out according to the energy that such a person in his situation would be able to expend. There is nary a Tom Cruise moment in the whole of the picture.

McCormac’s novel is a wonder of sustained tension with limited events and few resolutions. And it is all done with language. The film almost succeeds in accomplishing something similar with images. As long as the boy is quiet and the father determined, as they trudge through the colorless landscapes, “The Road” does justice to McCormac’s novel, But when an overly sincere character actor is brought on for a little skit in which the angelic boy pleads with his stern father to give a can of food to the stranger, we leave the literary world for the salt and butter escapism of the movies.

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