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On Movies: 'The Road' gives maximum effect to minimal hope

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 24, 2009 - Cormac McCarthy's book "The Road" presents a bleak and horrifying vision, a vision that is faithfully reproduced in the film version of the novel. Two people, a man and a boy, walk slowly as if in shock through a post-Apocalyptic earth destroyed by some global disaster, shuffling past hillsides of flattened trees and through rivers of ash. Beneath leaden skies, they are headed south, towards the sea.

Along the way, they escape more than once from cannibalistic marauders, they stumble upon a stocked air-raid shelter that offers them temporary refuge, and they have brief encounters with solitary pilgrims who share their fear of strangers. Otherwise, it's just the two of them against the blasted landscape. They keep walking, although there is minimal hope for the future. Indeed, there is no assurance that there will be a future at all, as the earth periodically rumbles and erupts, hurling boulders in the air and spouting fire.

Here is a representative paragraph from the book, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction:

"He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it."

Australian director John Hillcoat ("The Proposition") was handed the daunting task of making a movie out of this book. He's done a good job, as has screenwriter Joe Penhall, sticking fairly close to the novel. The two main characters - Viggo Mortensen as the man, Kodi Smit-McPhee as his son - are played well, responding expressively but without melodramatic overacting to episodes of terror and despair. The two personify the themes of the movie, which are the perseverance of the human spirit through almost unimaginable tragedy and our deep-seated need to pass on life to the next generation.

From time to time, the grey screen will brighten with color as the director flashes back to moments when the boy's mother (Charlize Theron) was still alive. These scenes offer more sunny relief than anything in the book gave us, and the movie as a whole may be slightly more hopeful than the novel, but the overall tone of the movie, like that of the book, is relentlessly, crushingly bleak. Hillcoat has done a solid, honest job of presenting the book, and the movie is well worth seeing. But so much of the power of the book depends upon McCarthy's dense and pungent poetry that the book is significantly better than the movie. It would be hard to imagine how it could be otherwise.

Opens Wednesday, Nov. 25

'The Messenger'

In "The Messenger," a powerful story about the effects of wars on the soldiers who fight them, Ben Foster gives an appropriately stoical performance as a young enlisted man who has come home to the United States from a desert hell and is assigned to a two-man team that notifies families that their loved ones have been killed in battle. The officer he works with is played by Woody Harrelson, who gives a stunning performance as a man struggling to keep the pain within him from bursting forth into violence. He doesn't always succeed. "The Messenger" is the second notably unsentimental movie about soldiers and combat to be released this year, the first being last summer's "The Hurt Locker." Both deserve to be candidates for end-of-the-year awards and 10-best lists.

Opens Friday, Nov. 27

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.