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Anyone who has read Cormac McCarthy's punishing post-apocalyptic novel The Road, or watched director John Hillcoat's equally visceral The Proposition, will know what they're in for. Think of a cobra spellbound by a flute – you know bad things will happen, that it can not possibly lead anywhere good, but watch it you must: masochistic viewing for the masses. And while that might sound like the worst kind of back-handed compliment, it's very much a forward slap, for Hillcoat has crafted a spellbinding film out of the most unremittingly bleak material.

As The Man (a perfectly cast brooding Viggo Mortensen) relates in a sombre voiceover, clocks stopped following “a long shear of bright light and a series of low concussions. Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting”. It's around here that his wife (Charleze Theron) takes her own life, leaving him to guide their son (Romulus My Father's Kodi Smit-McPhee) along the road to some kind of safety in a hellish world.

Amid a prevailing mood of hopeless despair, Hillcoat coxes gentle moments of light aided in no small part from Smit-McPhee's generous performance. Where all else has turned to black, The Boy retains some small vestige of humanity and it is this kernel The Man seeks to protect. As they stumble forward through a shattered landscape of scorched earth, Hillcoat translates the best of McCarthy's evocative text in a thrilling mix of lensing and design. The Road is no easier to watch than it is for them to walk, despite a glimmer of hope offered in cameo by Guy Pearce. Yet deep within the unabating coldness a flicker of warmth prevails, that spark of shared humanity The Man and The Boy will not let die.

moviereview colin fraser film movie australia review critic flicks