Cormac McCarthy provided the source material for one of the best films of the decade in No Country for Old Men. Now his subsequent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has been adapted, a brutal portrayal of the remnants of mankind fighting for survival in a post apocalyptic wasteland. If you want a joyous, fun-filled time at the movies, look elsewhere.
A road movie in the purest sense of the term, we follow a father (a superb, restrained Viggo Mortensen) and son (young Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee) attempting to make their way to the sea in the hopes of warmer weather. Their most dangerous challenge, more so than the vicious cold or of finding food, are cannibals armed with more than just their peculiar appetite. The full extent of this disturbingly plausible savagery is only glimpsed, but still produces the required quota of queasiness.
The source of the holocaust is not explained, making the film contained and emphasizing the central dilemma: just how far is one willing to go to survive? This juxtaposition forms the centre of the relationship with between the father, determined to ensure his son’s survival no matter the cost, and the son, who clings closer to accepted, civilized morals.
The father’s determination in part stems from the death of his wife (Charlize Theron), who chose her fate in preference to mere animalistic survival which she found distasteful. Don’t let the trailers fool you, though, her presence is fleeting and her story told in flashback.
I have not read the novel, but from the film one can easily get the feeling of McCarthy’s sparse punctuation-devoid prose and the overwhelming desolation of his world. Despite this, some characters, such as a dying old man played by an unrecognisable Robert Duvall, still retain their humanity amongst the horror.
And that, perhaps, is the film’s weakness. There are elements (I read) that have been softened from the novel (spit-roasted newborns, anyone?) and there are moments of promise that verge on sentimentality. It might be an odd claim for such a dark film, but one feels they almost didn’t go far enough.