The Road 

The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oprah-endorsed post-apocalyptic survivalist prose poem — in which a father and his 10-year-old son traverse a despoiled landscape of unspeakable horror — was a quick, lacerating read. Director John Hillcoat’s literal adaptation, which arrives one Thanksgiving past its original release date, is a long, dull slog.

The Road has a certain pragmatic integrity. (While aimed at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, it’s being strategically released by the Weinstein Company’s genre label Dimension.) Fidelity to the material is not the problem — on the contrary. Freezing, starving and dodging cannibal marauders, the Man (earnest, increasingly Christ-like Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (stolidly whimpering Kodi Smit-McPhee) follow the novel’s keep-on-keepin’-on trajectory (apparently to Florida’s Gold Coast), “carrying the fire” of human decency, as well as a gun loaded with two suicide bullets.

As a director, Hillcoat is certainly credentialed to handle this unpleasant saga. The Proposition, his 2006 Australian Outback oater, was a tale set in a dry-gulch hellhole of ferocious carnage. Although mildly sanitized, The Road has its grim frissons, but there’s a bizarre absence of dramatic tension. One can either embrace McCarthy’s laconic tone or ignore it. Hillcoat does neither. His Road never eludes its weighty pedigree — where McCarthy was free to focus on how a post-human world might feel, Hillcoat was compelled to illustrate these impressions and organize them into a coherent narrative.

Ultimately, Hillcoat’s The Road is less a disaster (or post-disaster) flick than a sort of global death trip, intended possibly as an audience ordeal in the tradition of The Passion of the Christ, complete with redemptive ending and regularly articulated life lessons. All meetings on the road are potential parables; every repetitive exchange between the Man and the Boy is presented as a mantra; and the appearance of a rheumy, putrid Old Man provides a gabby cameo for guest star Robert Duvall.

The Road’s long and winding path to the multiplex might make a more fascinating saga than the movie itself. The 2008 version was evidently deemed too bleak for audience consumption, which may account for the presence of Mortensen’s lugubrious, voice-over croon and the ruminative keyboard doodling used to soften every other scene. In addition to the obtrusive Nick Cave and Warren Ellis score, the Boy’s dead mother, who regularly appears in the Man’s thoughts in the tawny, distracted form of Charlize Theron, is at one point playing the piano.

Other memories of Life Before include gauzy close-ups of flowers, trees and the family horse. The latter is a nice touch, although my favorite addition to the novel is the close-up of the post-apocalyptic puppy that appears in the movie’s final scene. It’s reminiscent of the voice-over that opens Sam Fuller’s Vietnam-set China Gate: “In this ravaged city where people are starving, all the dogs have been eaten except one.

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