A soulful and savagely beautiful meditation on the end of the world, Australian director John Hillcoat adapts Cormac McCarthy’s tale of despair and faith with great delicacy and care. At the opposite end of the movie spectrum from the other recent apocalypse tale, 2012, this is simple and bleak, intimate and touching and follows the straggling journey of a father and son as they wander through a grey and shattered landscape in search of some kind of significance for their desolate existence.
Viggo Mortensen is the unnamed father, on the road with his son, played by Australian youngster Kodi Smit-McPhee. Filthy, hungry and wary of others, Mortensen picks his way through the ruins of humanity, searching for food and protecting the innocent boy from small bands of other survivors – some of whom have turned to cannibalism. At nights, sheltering against a small fire the father recalls warmer memories of his wife (Charlize Theron) and life before whatever it was that destroyed the planet. Like the life that the father and son have to live, details are sparse – we are never told causes, we are just witness to effects, and with no more ambition than to head south to the coast, their journey becomes an examination of the essence of humanity, father telling son to “carry the fire” – the closest we get to any concrete expression of the purpose of life. Yet through this seemingly forlorn narrative Hillcoat manages to find a kernel of optimism, and it’s a journey worth taking.
Mortensen is superb: every tendon in his shredded body seems to ache from the physical and emotional burden he carries, and young Smit-McPhee (who you may recall from Romulus, My Father) makes for a perfect innocent, challenging his father naively when the call for survival overtakes any sense of decency.
Much of the credit for the look of the film must go to Production Designer Chris Kennedy (he worked with Hillcoat on The Proposition and Ghosts of the Civil Dead), who has managed to transform locations throughout Pennsylvania and Oregon into ghostly grey wastelands. Hillcoat’s other long-time collaborator – Nick Cave – provides the appropriately haunting music. The end of the world will surely be like this – with the sound of whimpering rather than the bang of a blockbuster.