Review: The Road (15)****

There is an icy bleakness to this sterling adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's haunting novel of a modern apocalypse that chills the very marrow.

Maybe it's the sight of Viggo Mortensen's dead eyes as he drags his son with weary resignation across a desolate landscape toward an uncertain future. Maybe it's the unceasing greyness of the sky, the skeletal trees and the constant threat of lingering death (or worse) that hangs like a dread pall over our hero's every action and thought. One thing's for sure: this is a grim tale brought powerfully to life through a cast that, aside from Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as his son, play out the episodic nature of the story via compelling and utterly heartfelt vignettes.

The kernel of McCarthy's epic story remains unchanged. In a harsh, cold, barren world a man and his son struggle to survive. They fight the weather, exhaustion, constant hunger and marauding gangs of hostiles who may well be cannibals given the paucity of fresh game.

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Indeed one chapter of this tale is straight out of the pages of Poe, Hawthorne or some other grand guignol gothic horror. An isolated house. A locked cellar. Terrified people kept for food. A frantic escape. No looking back.

Later the Man and the Boy (no names are given; such is the sense of utter isolation) stumble across an underground shelter packed with tinned food. It is a survivalist's fantasy. Naturally they do not stay long, always heading for the coast and journey's end.

This poem to loneliness and despair eschews any sense of hope while offering a yearning for a safe haven far away. Mortensen is both compassionate father and wasteland warrior – an ordinary man driven to extraordinary acts, cruelty and killing to ensure the safety of his child.

Aficionados of post-apocalyptic cinema will see shades of prior movies, from The Omega Man and Mad Max through to Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog. Arguably The Road tops all of them, offering up a jagged, ragged, moon-like landscape, rain-soaked and inhospitable, populated by creatures who were once men and women but who have lost their humanity.

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Director John (The Proposition) Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe (Enduring Love) Penhall have crafted an unforgettable portrait of a brutish world where only the fittest and most ruthless survive. Throw in cameos from Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron, Garret Dillahunt and an unrecognisable Robert Duvall and this instantly becomes the first must-see picture of 2010.

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