Whenever I feel too content I reach for a Cormac McCarthy novel. If there is redemption or joy in the American's books you have to wade through swamps of pain before you find them. Yet McCarthy is the modern genius of uncompromising tale weaving in English.
So it comes down to the love for the father from the son and the love for the son from the father. This is the key upon which the film and the novel turns: that in a world of utter horror and degradation the greatest human gift, compassion, still burns.
He employs certain tactics to achieve this. He cuts out all the slack, he writes without speech marks and the speech merges with the description and the narrative. Yet the ear becomes attuned through the skill with which it is done. The result is something rhythmic, lyrical and always epic. The Road, from 2006, is the model McCarthy book.
John Hillcoat, the director of The Road, the movie, has done a nigh-perfect job in capturing all these qualities of spareness, of rhythm, of being epic. He also captures the atmosphere of McCarthy's bleak and gripping vision.
The story is set years after some disaster, resulting in a nuclear winter where nothing grows and all animal and plant life has died. Most of the remaining human population has become brutalised, predating on each other, as stocks of preserved or canned food dwindle. Marauding groups of desperate hunters trap other humans to cannibalise. Women give birth to babies so they can eat them. But an unnamed man and boy, refuse these 'inhuman' choices, and journey south, to where - largely without expectation on the man's side - they seek a milder climate and some sort of salvation.
One of McCarthy's virtues, and the film captures this, is to explain nothing which the characters can't explain. So when the pair find some brief shelter with food and security, they don't know how the place came to be left unused so we're not told. As for the disaster that led to this horror filled world, there is no clue to its origin, whether it was caused by humans or nature. This makes sense for the man and the boy, because the reasons, simply don't matter anymore, all that matters is food and warmth and each other.
Especially each other. McCarthy describes the relationship between the father and his son as 'each other's world entire'. This where the heart-wrench lies. This is why the pair need no names because they are all they have left. This is where the mother (Charleze Theron) fails. In flashbacks we learn that the struggle to live an impoverished existence with probable slaughter at its conclusion made her lose all hope. One night she walked away to die in the cold.
So it comes down to the love for the father from the son and the love for the son from the father. This lies at the core of The Road: that in a world of utter horror and degradation the greatest human gift, compassion, still burns. “The fire”, as the pair describe it. There is one scene where the boy clings, weeping, from fear and starvation on his father's shoulders that is almost unbearable to watch with their love the only saving grace.
It is this that lies at the heart of their decision not to succumb to cannibalism: it makes them 'the good guys'. Yet the tough father, ground down by the daily, hourly, struggle needs the son as much as the other way round.
At the start of the movie he has just two bullets left. He is saving these to kill his son and himself if they look likely to be captured by the predators. When he loses a bullet in defending his child and feels illness overtaking him, his awful dilemma magnifies, and the knowledge that one day, very soon, he may have to kill the boy, makes him start to shed his humanity.
So twice he is reminded by the boy that his suspicion and doubt is making him lose the virtues that set him apart from the beast-like men all around. One traveller they meet, Robert Duvall, an old man who is no threat, calls the boy 'an angel'. This is part of the boy's role, reminding the man of innocence and sincerity and revealing the value of their struggle - making him recall that he is a 'good guy', otherwise all of it is meaningless.
The film is relentless, unbearable, but totally absorbing, until, at last, something remarkable happens for a McCarthy work. After the final utter heartbreak there is a chink of light. Not much light, a fool's hope perhaps, but in a world of winter we find some warmth with which to watch the credits rise.
The Road is the perfect apocalyptic movie. After being saturated by the advent of the CGI fall of civilisations from Independence Day through The Day After Tomorrow to 2012, The Road provides a far more potent and less teenage vision. There are no set-pieces in which a shattered White House burns, only a grey ash-blown winter of dirty woods, dead plains and scruffy burnt out towns. It convinces you that this is what it could be like.
Visit a cinema close to a bar or a pub if you intend to watch this movie: you might need a drink afterwards. It's a stunning movie: one where you can watch, the man, Viggo Mortensen, winning his best actor Oscar, and the boy, Kodi Smit-McPhee, winning his best supporting role Oscar in a not too distant, and – let's hope - not so difficult future.
The Road (15) is on general release now.