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11/25/2009

A jolting, well-acted 'Road' through the ruins

Except for the quality acting and poignant, effective screenplay, the post-apocalyptic drama "The Road" could serve as a follow-up to the popular, but one-dimensional doomsday thriller "2012."

Thankfully, it's not.  Based on Cormac McCarthy's decidedly dismal 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the simple, yet haunting story follows two disaster survivors; a father and his terrified young son on a scorched, devastated road to somewhere, hopefully, but possibly nowhere.

"It's just another earthquake.  I'm right here," the near-starving father played by Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen says to his son, The Boy (Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee).

We never learn what caused all this devastation that has knocked Mother Earth to her knees.  War?  Global warming?  Giant meteor strike?  All we know about the past is that The Man woke up to a blindling light outside the window.
 
He filled the bathtub with water before the devastation reached them.  We learn in flashbacks that The Woman (Charlize Theron) chose not to accompany her husband and son when they hit what's left of the road.

All we know is that The Man and The Boy, desperately weak, hungry and often cold, are trying to make it to the ocean.  The Boy has never seen one.  That gift, if he can make it there, is all a father slapped to near death by circumstances has to possibly offer a son.

Horrific destruction mixes with a will to live in this effective, minimalist screenplay by playwright Joe Penhall.   Heightened fears since the terrorist attacks of 2001 add another element to the mix.  What happens to humanity when the world around up has been reduced to ash?

Australian director John Hillcoat ("The Proposition") set up location camp in Pennsylvania, where blackened coal landscapes, devastated mining areas and the abandoned freeway or two could be located.  The shoot also ventured to the shores of Lake Erie, Katrina-stricken areas of Louisiana and to Oregon.

As convincing as the backgrounds are (becoming a central character themselves), the heart of "The Road" comes from performances Hillcoat draws from excellent actor Mortensen, an Oscar nominee for "Eastern Promises," and young Smit-McPhee, who appeared in "Romulus, My Father."

There are other stunned wanderers along the disaster-stricken road, of course.  Robert Duvall ("The Godfather," an Oscar winner for "Tender Mercies"), barely recognizable as The Old Man, is as good as you'd expect him to be.  And Guy Pearce, who appeared in Hillcoat's "The Proposition," provides a little hope for whatever is left of mankind as The Veteran.

Just know going in that "The Road" is a long, hard one that adheres faithfully to McCarthy's masterpiece of devastation.  

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