Cormac McCarthy hasn’t published a novel in 16 years. That’s not to say he should be publishing them now—he’s had a career as one of the most influential and celebrated voices in American fiction, he’s won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and he was born before the end of Prohibition, so he has earned his rest—but rather to underscore the fact that his body of work might well be finished growing. For four decades, he released a new book every handful of years, seeming to crest with the 1992-1998 window that saw the release of his Border Trilogy, before offering two more novels back-to-back in 2005 and 2006, a few years into the new century: first No Country for Old Men, then, at the end, The Road.
Even by McCarthy’s standards, The Road is spare: a slim, quick shot of a novel about an unnamed father and son venturing on foot through an American wasteland laid to ruin by a vaguely defined apocalypse. It’s winter. There are no living plants or animals. Their only hope is to migrate south by following the highway toward the coast, and their journey unspools in elliptical patterns of exploration, scavenging, hiding, and fleeing from other survivors. Society having long since broken down, people have reverted to feral, tribalistic impulses, traveling in packs to feed on the weak. The man and the boy have nothing to protect themselves with but a revolver that holds two remaining shells. The Road is about what it means to survive past the end of things, and whether it’s even worth it to try. There’s something appropriate, poetic even, about the fact that it’s currently McCarthy’s last novel. What better way to end than by trying to understand endings?
Turning that into a movie, though, is a whole other problem. What feels intimate on a page can often feel aloof on a screen, as the adaptation process always inevitably loses some essence of the original. To remedy this, director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall basically circumvent the idea of an adaptation and bring as much of the book to life as possible, right down to the dialogue and author’s narration, the latter of which becomes the man’s occasional voice-over. The result is less a traditional adaptation and more of a transmutation. The movie follows the book’s blueprint closer than most are able to, turning the film into a beautiful, mournful companion piece to the novel. The film stands on its own while always reflecting its source material back to us, like a series of mirrors.
In the film, the man is played by Viggo Mortensen, while the boy is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. The film is theirs to carry mostly alone, aside from a few scattered scenes with other survivors (and a handful of flashbacks to a time shortly after the devastating event, when the man and the boy were still living with the third member of their family, the wife and mother played by Charlize Theron). Smit-McPhee is fine—there’s rarely much for even talented child actors to do in movies like this but look distressed and yell “Papa!” when bad guys start to close in—but Mortensen is like a secret weapon, and he makes every one of his scenes and lines of dialogue carry a weight that feels like something only he could create.
As an actor, it was Mortensen’s looks and stature that brought him to fame, first in average 1990s thrillers and then at the stratospheric level as the somber Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But it’s his voice that remains his unique and most interesting tool. It’s in a higher register than you might expect, more of a gentle low tenor than the standard grating baritone you get from most action stars. And there’s a sensitivity to the drawl, a blend of dialects that reflect his heritage and upbringing by a Danish father and American mother as they moved from New York to Venezuela to Denmark to Argentina, before Mortensen returned to the States for college. His voice is hard to pin down: mercurial, able to change emotions in such small but meaningful ways. In one flashback scene, he and the woman are arguing quietly because she wants to commit suicide and kill the boy too. He begs her to hold on, saying they’ll survive. “I don’t want to just survive,” she says, holding onto their gun for comfort. The man says, “You sound… crazy.” And it’s such a simple line on the page, and not even an original one, but Mortensen builds a world of their life together in that pause, and “crazy” is mournful and hurt and wondering, staring at this person he no longer understands. The point of this particular flashback moment is to begin to lay the track for the direction the woman will eventually take—alone—and this is such a small moment. But Mortensen is so good. You can’t stop watching every little thing he does.
Hillcoat’s facility with the atmosphere and his ability to navigate viewers through a bleak landscape that doesn’t seem to change while still creating a sense of movement, harks back to his work as director of The Proposition, which is what got him this gig in the first place. The Road bears some basic similarities to that bleak Western—blasted landscapes, a sense of futility, the uneasy knowledge on the faces of the characters that they got themselves into a mess they can’t understand or solve—but is of course its own entry into the genre, as a story about a man ferrying precious cargo through dangerous territory. You know from the outset that there are so many possible resolutions, none of them particularly upbeat, but that’s the crux of the story. The man wanted to find a way to survive above all else; the woman, understandably, could not see any merit in merely surviving to see another gray and hungry day.
The man’s journey actually operates in communication with McCarthy’s penultimate novel, No Country for Old Men, itself turned into a brilliant film in 2007. One of the main characters in that story, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, has a dream in which he sees his father, who was a sheriff in his own time, riding through a snowy pass, carrying fire in a tin horn, making a path for Bell to follow to safety and warmth. In The Road (the book and the film), the man teaches the boy about the difference between good guys and bad guys, saying that they themselves are good guys, and that it’s their job to carry the fire. When the boy meets another man, he asks if he, too, is carrying the fire. It’s this sense of duty and moral import that McCarthy spends his last two novels investigating, and the films that resulted from them do the same. The Road doesn’t provide an easy answer, either—who are we to carry the fire? And to where? And for what purpose? This, at the heart of it, seems to be where McCarthy ended up, and where he might leave us. At least he’ll have gone ahead to light the way.