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'The Road' offers a miserable journey worth taking

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By Eric Harris

The film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's bestselling novel, "The Road," has had a long trek of its own into theaters. It was supposed to have been released over a year ago but was delayed time and time again. It was finally released into a handful of theaters a month ago and is now being slowly expanded across the country. Typically, when a movie is completed and shelved for over a year, that means it is terrible or just too weird to find an audience. I'm happy to say "The Road" is neither. The only reason I can think of for delaying the film is the marketing issues that arise when dealing with such a dreary film, though the marketing should be done already since so many people have read the amazing novel that the film is based on.

"The Road" takes place after the apocalypse. We're never told exactly what happened, but that's not important. All we know is that whatever happened left the world scorched and nearly lifeless. Into this world comes a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), trying to make their way to the coast. The traveling is not easy, though. Cannibalism has become the main form of survival, but the man and the boy (their names are never given) are the "good guys" and they survive on the dwindling supply of actual food left on the planet.

So the film is a bit dark, both literally and figuratively. When you are dealing with a film, or a book, that is supposed to be about actual and moral survival and hope, the more miserable the situation is, the better. Director John Hillcoat ("The Proposition") creates a perfectly gray world to bolster this idea. And even though it may look miserable, it also ends up being a visually striking look for the film that will stick with you for awhile.

The look alone can't draw you into the film, though. The performances from Mortensen and Smit-McPhee complete the world. Mortensen looks absolutely haggard and his voice and face convey the character's misery to perfection. Couple that with Smit-McPhee's terrific turn as a frightened, yet morally strong child and you have a believable father-son duo trying to survive a harsh world. I expect a great performance from Mortensen ("Lord of the Rings," "Eastern Promises"), but Smit-McPhee was a pleasant surprise. Whenever you're dealing with a story with a child as a main character, there is always the chance that a terrible young actor could ruin the film, but Smit-McPhee is utterly convincing in this.

Aside from the two leads, "The Road" is peppered with short but sweet roles for Garret Dillahunt, Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce. Charlize Theron does a fine job as the man's wife who is not along for the journey but is seen in flashbacks and dreams. The prevalence of Theron in the previews worried me since it seemed like they were going to play up on the pre-apocalypse scenes, which are not focused on in the novel. But, thankfully, the film sticks closely to the book.

The faithfulness to the source material is the strongest aspect of the film. The scenes that I remembered most clearly from the book were created just as I imagined them. That could be a problem for some people who have read the book, though. Everyone creates their own personal image of what a story would look like and it just so happened that Hillcoat's interpretation jived with mine. That may not be the case with everyone. Maybe the gray misery will outweigh the hope for you more than it did in the novel, when you decided for yourself how dreary the world was.

 I don't think many people will have that problem, though.

It may sound like reading the book beforehand is a requirement based on this review, but I think you can enjoy this one without reading it. I do think that this film caters to the readers, though, and the readers will be the biggest supporters of the film. That may be the reason why the studio is limiting the release of this, though I would definitely recommend checking this out if it is near you, even if you haven't read the book. You may come out of the theater feeling a bit depressed, but you won't regret a minute of the beautiful misery.

Harris, a Cannelton resident, is a movie buff and blogger who posts reviews of films at www.canneltoncritic.com.