The success of No Country for Old Men in 2007 paved the way for more adaptations of Cormac McCarthy’s Western-influenced novels. It was assumed that Blood Meridian [1982], the author’s best-regarded work, would finally find its way into cinema, although that project has yet to materialize. [Given that it’s in part about the genocide of Native Americans, we’ll see if it ever gets successfully financed and produced.] Just two years after No Country, however, Dimension Films released an adaptation of McCarthy’s The Road, his novel about a man and his son—identified only as The Man and the Boy—surviving in a post-apocalyptic America.

Apocalypses are a dime a dozen in today’s pop culture landscape. Particularly after this November—whether your concerns about Armageddon are rooted in climate change or nuclear proliferation [and you should probably be concerned about both]—it’s easy to see where this recurrent fictional setting is coming from. It’s hard not to feel we’re living on the precipice of cataclysm.

But The Road is the kind of apocalyptic story that reminds us that as mortal humans we’re always living on a precipice. Its anxieties are existential rather than socio-historical. As evidence, take the fact that, while we can infer that the world that the Man and the Boy live in is in the middle of a nuclear winter, no explicit explanation or social context is given for the apocalypse. The story told doesn’t demand an explanation; it isn’t about figuring out the solution, as in I Am Legend [2008], or reconstituting a social structure, as in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes [2014]. It uses its apocalyptic setting to talk about the inevitability of death, the existence of evil, and the possibility of love—Incidentally, its closest relatives are probably Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf [2003] and the video game The Last of Us [2013], which clearly takes a fair amount of inspiration from it. [Both are excellent. Go see/play them.]

In the film, Viggo Mortensen plays the Man and Kodi Smit-McPhee the Boy as they travel across a rural North America in its death throes. The sun never emerges from behind heavy gray clouds; trees spontaneously collapse and catch fire; wildlife as well as crops are nonexistent; the only options for the few survivors is either scavenging from the dried-out husks of civilization or cannibalism. No one can be trusted.

The Man and the Boy began heading South after the death of the Boy’s mother and the Man’s wife [Charlize Theron], in hopes that they might find a place near the ocean that remains warm and verdant. When we join them at the beginning of the film, they have two bullets left, which they are saving for the almost inevitable moment when they choose suicide over death at the hands of cannibals. Their journey is punctuated by harrowing encounters with fellow survivors who have often resorted to the most depraved means of staying alive. 

The story is almost aggressively dismal and its violence, even when just implied, is extreme, but director John Hillcoat [The Proposition] knows how to represent graphic violence without making it feel gratuitous. Although both the Man and the young Boy are inured to the sight of death, neither they nor the film betray a cavalier attitude toward violence. Indeed the crux of the story is in the Boy’s indefatigable innocence, his humane horror at the mistreatment of other living beings, despite the fact that this is the only world he has ever known.

Hillcoat’s film is in many ways very close to McCarthy’s book. The major narrative beats are largely the same, and it doesn’t spare us many of the visceral details of McCarthy’s nihilistic, post-apocalyptic North America. The thoroughly washed-out colors of its dying forests and empty roads are precisely the impression one gets from McCarthy’s sparse, cold prose. It’s difficult to imagine a better actor for the role of the Man than Viggo Mortensen, whose performance captures the Man’s growing cynicism and his weakening resistance to it. Like the Coens’ No Country, actually, it’s a remarkably faithful adaptation.

But the film ultimately doesn’t pack the emotional punch you might expect. While the scenes of tension and close escape are thrilling, other moments of bonding between the Man and the Boy often feel rushed. Although Mortensen’s performance tries valiantly to suggest otherwise, the Boy throughout the film feels like a burden the Man bears, rather than a torch he carries (a metaphor the film and the book both use).

Contributing to this is Smit-McPhee’s tendency to come off as whiny rather than innocent. Undoubtedly, the Boy is a challenging role to play for a child actor, and Smit-McPhee largely plays him convincingly. But the profundity of the child’s innocence, which in the book feels like a punch to the gut, is lost in the way it’s presented here. The truly significant moments from the book, in which the Boy insists on helping strangers even after the pair’s numerous close calls with this world’s monsters, come off as less intriguing than when the two are running from cannibals.

Although I’m hesitant to suggest any story needs less female presence, one thing that might have made the relationship between the Boy and the Man more compelling is a de-emphasis on flashbacks. The first half is full of flashbacks to the immediate post-apocalyptic situation, in which Theron’s character is pregnant with the boy, gives birth to him, and eventually decides to end her life. The problem with these sequences is that they take the allegorical characters of the Man and the Boy—broadly sketched and even lacking names—and try to flesh out one of them psychologically. 

McCarthy’s novel subordinates the story of the Boy’s mother to that of the Boy and the Man. She is a mere memory merely alluded to, a device for propelling the story forward. The book can be critiqued on those grounds as part of a long lineage of fiction in patriarchal society that uses female characters as mere motivation-fodder for its central male characters. However, the movie’s decision to focus more on the Wife as a memory and an inspiration to the Man hardly corrects this trope. Indeed, the film effectively doubles down on it while simultaneously re-focusing the story somewhat away from the relationship between the Boy and the Man.

The film adaptation of The Road, like its source material, is often beautifully bleak and tonally complex. It is a violent epic that, paradoxically, also feels restrained. It is both deeply humane and unrelentingly cynical. It is explicitly about men’s emotions and is, in many ways, deeply conservative. It features memorable moments of both wonder and horror. Ultimately it doesn’t succeed in generating the emotional impact it clearly strives for, but it is a healthy antidote to the truly shallow versions of the apocalypse common today.