Putting one foot in front of the other can be the hardest thing in the world, even more so when the world around you is dying and a child is leaning on you for strength. The Road is tough but powerful, pure and, ultimately, hopeful. In the role of the father (known only as 'Man' and played by Viggo Mortensen) is a man whose only function is to enable the survival of his son (the 'Boy' played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) in the aftermath of an unexplained apocalypse.
On the face of it, the goal is simple; Man and Boy must get to the Pacific coast, crossing a charred, ominous landscape for no apparent reason except that “Go West” has always held the promise of a better life in American history. It’s a taxing journey with a starkness that renders it almost monochrome. But then, that is the world they live in. The father doesn't talk much, except to get his son to understand that there are good guys and bad guys (the bad guys have resorted to cannibalism) and telling them apart means the difference between life and death.
Beyond the clear goal of staying alive is a deeper struggle to cling on to humankind. Though the Man is dedicated to teaching his son right from wrong, the example he sets leaves the Boy frequently questioning: "Are we still the good guys?" The Man won't think twice about killing someone if it means his son is protected. He also carries a gun with two bullets, one of which he's bent on saving in case, he says, "the time comes..."; the suggestion is that he might kill his child to keep him from a worse fate. Along the way, the Man tries not to think about his wife (Charlize Theron) and the choice they made to have the Boy in a time of uncertainty.
In a story that is otherwise brutally and attractively simple, the flashbacks feel a needless distraction. The drive is in the journey that takes them farther away from the life they once knew and the debris of consumer living - a Coke can, abandoned cars, a broken city skyline - provide a moving reminder of what has been lost. The quiet, slightly distant relationship between Man and Boy is also more revealing about family life pre-apocalypse. At one point, the Boy reveals a desire to be with his mother in the hereafter and dad promptly hushes him. Like many a father-son relationship, the Boy is frustrated by his father's inability to share his feelings. He is a man of action, but as the story progresses, the Boy becomes his moral compass.
It's the gradual, subtle relationship of Man and Boy that is so moving and sincere. The choice presented to this father is more grimly profound, of course, and the result of that is devastating (have the tissues handy), but the darkness finally serves to brighten a dim light at the end of the tunnel. Future scenes with Robert Duvall (a steely Old Man) and Guy Pearce (a mysterious tracker) give Man a chance to receive the Boy's childish wisdom and, with this, comes hope.