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Really Left Behind

“The Road” shows that the worst isn't over at the end of the world.

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What does the destruction of the world look like? An asteroid hurtling through space? A gigantic tidal wave knocking a monk from his Himalayan perch? The reality is less exciting than you might think. After watching the “The Road,” a terrific and terrifyingly realistic film about a post-apocalyptic near future, jumping a crevasse in a Dodge Charger seems like small potatoes. The aftermath of the end of the world looks much scarier.

In this simple but devastating movie, it's an ashen, barren landscape where a man (Viggo Mortensen) and a boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), pick through abandoned cars and buildings for sustenance as they make their way south along the East Coast. Based on the short book by Cormac McCarthy (“No Country for Old Men”) and directed by John Hillcoat (“The Proposition”), the movie begins some time after a calamity that has ended life as we know it, leaving behind a scattering of survivors to discover what horrors humanity is capable of.

Effectively building suspense, the movie is miserly with its background information, but what we gradually learn through flashback is that there was once a third member of the family, the wife and mother (Charlize Theron) who didn't make it this far. We learn even less about what happened to the world. The man woke up in the night to terrible sounds and lights. The family hid inside their home until the food ran out, occasionally fighting off others. Now the boy is about 11 or 12. He and the father, looking a little like homeless people after months without soap or scissors, push a shopping cart along the road while scrounging for nourishment.

Sometimes they find a delicious desiccated cricket to swallow or some other scrumptious refuse, but usually they find nothing. Food is not the only thing to be on the lookout for, however. Mostly there are just other people, also doing anything, and often great harm, to survive. Coming across them is almost always a cause for apprehension, not rejoicing. Cannibalism, the man tells us in voice-over, is “the great fear.”

As you might have gathered, “The Road” is a bit bleak. But bleak feels right, making the simple struggle to go on into an act of heroism. Not everyone has, we learn along with the boy, who discovers in an abandoned barn the hanging remains of a family that gave up. His saddened eyes brighten a little at their dangling shoes, good finds. Such scenes are brutal in their admission of the truth. The movie doesn't just ask whether the man and the boy will make it, but how they can keep trying.

Adding to the sense that this is what it would be like if such a thing really happened, the movie limits the use of a score, usually a heavy handed device in a suspenseful drama, and uses computer-generated imagery sparingly to create its decaying wasteland with restraint. The sparse script sticks closely to McCarthy's book. There isn't a false line of dialogue and hardly an over-the-top moment, no matter how surreal things get.

The more a movie strives for realism, of course, the more minor issues stand out. Yet there are only a couple of moments that feel like movie stuff, and even then only a little. In one, a band of would-be marauders on a truck coughing a slow march down the road look a bit too menacing for their own good, wearing frightful masks and brandishing homemade weapons. In another, we learn of the fate of the woman, a situation uncharacteristically melodramatic, though no less upsetting.

On the other hand, some of the notions suggested by the film seem so horrible you may want to assume they, too, are unbelievable. And yet history is full of examples that back up the movie's ideas: cannibalism during the fall of Rome; German children boiling wallpaper for nutrients after their country's defeat in World War II.

“The Road” can be taken as a bitter dose of reality, nothing more or less. But for all its faithful investigation of the misery and savagery lurking behind society's fragile structures, it manages to be as much about civilization as the end of it. If it's about the struggle for existence, its brief, tender moments demonstrate why anyone should. (R) 113 min. HHHHH

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