The RoadOrange lightDirector John Hillcoat’s poignant post-apocalyptic father and son yarn The Road provides one helluva case study in last minute cinematic cock-ups.

It is by and large an impressively made film. Over a couple of carefully constructed hours Hillcoat slowly ropes the audience into his patiently paced adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel about lonely vagabonds who troll across a desolate end-of-days American landscape.

The film’s grasp of realism feels eerily prophetic. The story unfolds in a universe all too close to home, where realistically drawn people do their best to survive in a gruesomely bleak future. For about 99% of the running time The Road exists light years away from the cheese-saturated settings Hollywood so regularly whisks us away to. It is uncompromising. Gritty. The film is heavy and meaningful and, you know, it stands for something.

And then. And then. And then…

Let’s just say it’s devastating to watch two finely crafted hours at the cinema unwound by one absolutely bogus final scene. I won’t go into details about why The Road’s ending stinks like the proverbial fish John West rejects. People tend to get a bit shirty when reviewers do things like ruin the endings of films they want to watch.

I will say the manner with which The Road concludes smells to high hell like a studio enforced compromise in the ignominious tradition of botched films such as the original cut of Blade Runner, in which a happy ending was tacked on in an attempt to make the experience more palatable.

After all, executive producer Harvey Weinstein also goes by the mantle Harvey Scissorhands – a nickname he earned in the early years of Miramax when he was known for chopping European films to make them more appealing to American audiences. The ending of The Road suggests Weinstein hasn’t hung up his slash-n-dice shingle just yet.

Hillcoat’s cop-out isn’t as cheesy as the Blade Runner shemozzle; it’s not a total sell out but it’s way, way too close for comfort. Inadvertently The Road highlights the volatility of the cinema experience: one dud scene, if delivered at the most inopportune moment (i.e. right before the closing credits) can sour the whole experience.

The Road is set in a world upturned by Mother Nature. The specifics are not detailed but we can assume John McCain rose from the dead to bring the Republicans back to power. America is desolate and ravaged; cities have crumbled; the streets are deserted; people are few and far between and they are all either starving or cannibalistic or both.

Father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wander around looking for food and places to sleep. Their wife/mother (Charlise Theron) committed suicide before things got hell-on-earth bad. Some of the horrible places they go – well, you wouldn’t put ‘em on the brochure.

The extraordinary thing about how the interpersonal relationships pan out in The Road is that, partly because there are so few characters, virtually every interaction between the leads and other humans takes on near profound significance. Robert Duvall, performing from beneath two inches of mud, is rousing as a weary and pathetic old man. The rest of the cast are uniformly strong and the dynamic between Mortensen and Smit-McPhee forms the film’s hard-beaten heart.

The Road film was beautifully and sadly shot by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who paints it in anaemic washed-out tones – the look of a dying, inconsolable world. Technically it’s very well realised.

Like McCarthy’s book, The Road’s plot is roundabout and episodic and has a drifting quality. It feels like we’re tagging along for the journey, straggling a few metres behind these dejected, directionless souls. Some moments in the film resonate strongly. One of them for all the wrong reasons.

The Road’s Australian theatrical release date: January 28, 2010.