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'The Road": Bleak tale of survival

This is not the thing a father teaches his child: how to use a gun to kill yourself.

This is not the thing a father teaches his child: how to use a gun to kill yourself.

But in The Road, John Hillcoat's haunting adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the only lessons to impart between a nameless father and his boy are dire. The few, very few, people left alive in the wake of a mysterious cataclysm (nuclear? climatic? environmental?) have turned predatory. There is little food to eat, and so humans are eating humans. They are raping, pillaging, killing. The suicide lesson is a last resort - a preemptive option, before doom closes in.

The Man and the Boy - Viggo Mortensen, in a beautifully calibrated performance, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, unself-consciously mastering a range of intense emotions - are "heading south for the Coast." That sounds like a pleasant enough excursion, until you look at the terrain they must cross: denuded forests, abandoned, ash-coated highways, old houses strewn with corpses - a landscape of rot and emptiness, godless, gray.

A marvel of production design - the wasted Interstates, the graffitied billboards, the body parts wedged under burnt cars - The Road offers a bleak but soulful allegory about survival, about the bonds between parent and child. Scripted by the British playwright Joe Penhall, using McCarthy's precise staccato prose as a model, The Road is, well, a road movie, a journey from Point A to Point B, with the good, the bad, and the ugly encountered along the way. There are challenges to face, decisions to be made.

Shot mostly in rugged pockets of western Pennsylvania and on the shores of Lake Erie, the film, somber and spooky, is in constant danger of slipping into self-parody: Zombieland, after all, uses a similar postapocalyptic template - a small band of survivors on the run from flesh-eating subhumans - and it's way more fun. But Hillcoat, director of the scruffily biblical Australian western The Proposition, keeps the focus on Mortensen and Smit-McPhee: dragging their shopping cart of belongings across the desolation, huddling together in the cold, the father trying to teach his son about good and evil, right and wrong. (It's impossible to watch The Road and not think about the plight of the homeless in our cities and country today - for many, a personal apocalypse is already here.)

The two actors - the pro and the novice - share the screen almost all of the time, and they're riveting. The flashbacks to the way things were - when the Boy's mother (Charlize Theron) was still alive - provide a context of mourning and memory. Robert Duvall shows up in a small but pivotal role. And Javier Aguirresarobe, cinematographer for Woody Allen's light-infused Vicky Cristina Barcelona, finds the poetry in the awfulness: His dark, affecting shots are full of tragic beauty.

The Road isn't a masterpiece. The stark simplicity of the story, the drudgery of survival - not to mention its grisly George Romero moments - sometimes thwart the deeper themes that the filmmakers aspired to mine. But I cannot think of another film this year that has stayed with me, its images of dread and fear - and yes, perhaps hope - kicking around like such a terrible dream.