Bang or whimper? Fire or ice? Happily, holiday moviegoers interested in pondering the end of the world can select scenarios far more elaborate than those simple, traditional choices.
You can endure the noise and spectacle of Roland Emmerich’s “2012,” with its Mayan prophecies and mischievous neutrinos, or, if you are in a more stoic frame of mind, you can submit to the drizzle and grayness of “The Road,” adapted by the director John Hillcoat and the writer Joe Penhall from Cormac McCarthy’s austere and chilling fable of post-apocalyptic father-son bonding.
These two films — the cheesy action blockbuster and the earnest, literary Oscar aspirant — converge on a serious, anxious question. In the wake of a planetary catastrophe, how will humanity survive? Not the species itself, but rather the repertory of behaviors and impulses that we like to think separate us from other animals.
The unnamed father in “The Road” comforts his boy by telling him that the two of them are “carrying the fire.” A similar image is conjured near the end of “No Country for Old Men,” the Coen brothers’ movie based on another book by Mr. McCarthy, and in both cases it suggests the fragile decency that a righteous minority must protect from the forces of chaos and evil. The odds are not terrific, and whether their hope is a matter of hardy faith or persistent delusion is an open question.
The father and son, played by Viggo Mortensen and a wonderfully sensitive young actor named Kodi Smit-McPhee, drift through a world ruined by an unspecified cataclysm. A few flashbacks of ease and sunlight conjure the time before, when there was a mother on the scene, glowingly incarnated by Charlize Theron. Then something happened — Nuclear war? Environmental disaster? — that left a lot of people dead, threw the mother into despair and gutted the civilization those of us in the comfort of the multiplex take for granted.
The most arresting aspect of “The Road” is just how fully the filmmakers have realized this bleak, blighted landscape of a modern society reduced to savagery. A grimy, damp fog hangs over everything, and instead of birdsong there is the eerie creak and crash of falling trees. Vehicles sit abandoned on highways, houses stand looted and vacant, and what used to be towns are afterimages of violence and wreckage.
The only thing scarier than the empty, depopulated roads is the possibility of seeing people on them, who are more likely to be predators than possible companions. (However, since this is Cormac McCarthy country, we do meet an ancient, nearly blind man who speaks in riddles and is played by Robert Duvall.) The panic that must have attended the early days of destruction has long since given way, for the father and son, to weary anxiety and, in the boy’s case, constant fear. This is normal life: desperate scavenging punctuated by bouts of acute danger and occasional spasms of good luck.
They are not the only human beings left, but the father has divided the remnant into good guys and bad guys. In the second category are roving gangs of cannibals who evoke the flesh-eating zombies in a horror movie. And “The Road,” at its lean and suspenseful best, partakes of some of the grisly thrills and allegorical opportunities of that genre.
Mr. Mortensen, looking haggard and haunted, pushes it toward realism. A surpassingly quiet and thoughtful actor, he specializes in making improbable characters — a Middle Earth warrior in “Lord of the Rings,” a Russian mobster in “Eastern Promises,” a small-town dad with a secret in “A History of Violence” — seem like natural extensions of his own personality. In Mr. McCarthy’s skeletal, purple-tinted prose, the father is less a cipher than an axiom, an embodiment of flinty paternal steadfastness partly humanized by doubts and flaws. Mr. Mortensen puts flesh on the bones and a soul behind the exhausted, terrified eyes.
But “The Road,” though frequently powerful, and animated by a genuinely troubling premise, is hampered by compromises and half-measures. These have less to do with changes made to the story — Mr. Penhall’s script follows the novel as faithfully as a hunting dog — than with shifts in emphasis and tone. The intermittently fake-folky orchestral score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is musically inoffensive, but the way it is used softens crucial scenes and turns the sublime into the sentimental.
It may seem perverse to complain that a vision of human near-extinction is insufficiently bleak. After all, even Mr. McCarthy’s book offers a few hints of consolation. But for these to mean anything, the full horror of the situation has to be grasped, and despair has to be given its due. The film is reluctant to go that far, and, like Mr. Mortensen’s character, offers a reassurance that can feel a bit dishonest. The difference is that the father is fighting not to lose his son, while the filmmakers are striving not to lose an audience.
And, for the most part, they succeed. “The Road” is engrossing and at times impressive, a pretty good movie that is disappointing to the extent that it could have been great. Is this the way the world ends? With polite applause?
“The Road” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has grisly violence and a pervasive mood of terror.