Perhaps by necessity, "The Road" seems broken down into distinct encounters, strung together on the loosest narrative thread, which lends the film a natural feeling of lawless wandering, but undermines the potential strength of the plot. The protagonists have an ultimate destination charted, to make it to the coast, but in general, a character or group of characters will interact with them for ten minutes and part ways. The screenplay by Joe Penhall, an adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy, keeps this potentially redundant scene structure from growing stale with a usually fascinating and diverse array of character types, from bloodthirsty cannibals to a hobbling hobo (Robert Duvall) or a roving pack of bandits.
The other premise weaving these sequences together is Mortensen's deteriorating health. He wakes from dreams of his previous life, filled with the unfamiliar greens and blues of the living world, to uncontrollable coughing fits. It quickly becomes clear he must impart his worldly knowledge to the boy before his time comes. In doing so, he is presented with several morally compromising scenarios, involving the trust of a stranger or the punishment of a thief, and his cold calculation and instinct for self-preservation clash with the ideological selflessness of his son. We can hardly blame Mortensen's character for preaching distrust in the world the film depicts, but the sequences themselves inevitably prove the son correct, treating many of the encounters more as parables than legitimate ideological debate.
This premise, without spoiling it, comes to an underwhelming zenith in "The Road's" final moments. It's not that the ending is sappy, though alright, it's a little sappy. Smit-McPhee's character must crucially weigh the application of his trust, in a scene that should carry the emotional weight of the entire film on its shoulders. Instead, director John Hillcoat plays the moment merely for tension, which is displayed to great effect already in half a dozen previous scenes. Resultantly, the conclusion drawn is acceptable but largely unsatisfying. The audience is left to just sort of shrug it off.
Like "Children of Men," "The Road" posits a bleak future that doesn't feel stagey or pretentious. Both films are visually powerful, if in opposite ways, with Hillcoat's film favoring subtle, moody cinematography over the frenetic energy of its contemporary. Despite my issues with the structure of the film, I have no reservations using adjectives like 'powerful' or 'effective' to describe it, though I can't quite bring myself to call "The Road" 'great.' The distinction for me lies in that the piece doesn't speak as a whole so much as it does a series of interesting scenes that come very close to complementing one another.
Entirely watchable, and by no means worth avoiding, "The Road" offers uncompromising performances, and an unusually intimate take on the disaster film. After all, anyone can blow up the world, but not everyone can make us care.