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The word “bleak” keeps popping into mind when considering the big screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Road.”

Of course, the story involves the horrible aftermath of an unnamed apocalyptic disaster, so “bleak” is an unerringly appropriate description even if the film is brilliant...as it occasionally is.

Viggo Mortensen (“Appaloosa”) portrays an unnamed man trying to survive the destruction of our planet’s ecosystem. He and his wife (Charlize Theron from “Hancock”) and young son (newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) are holed up in their home, watching in dismay as a permanent winter sets in.

A few years after the disaster, plants cease to reproduce, the animal population has been exploited and humanity is reduced to thievery and cannibalism. Armed roving gangs capture people to hold as human livestock.

Yea, it’s bleak.

Once his wife commits suicide and all of their supplies have run out, the man decides that the only chance his son has for survival is to find “other good people.” Father and son begin a long journey, walking southward down the eastern seaboard in search of food, warmth and (most especially) decent human beings.

They take along a gun with two bullets. They’re to be used for protection or, in a worst-case scenario, suicide.

Director John Hillcoat (“The Proposition”) and his production staff convincingly create a dead-world atmosphere. Some of the scenes were shot in the areas devastated by the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens that have yet to recover, as well as areas of Louisiana that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Much of the dialogue by screenwriter Joe Penhall (“Enduring Love”) seems to be faithfully lifted from McCarthy’s book, but he and Hillcoat didn’t quite figure out how to cinematically capture the unique quality of McCarthy’s prose.

But they do create a believably oppressive atmosphere that makes watching “The Road” an unnerving experience.

Mortensen is excellent, expressing both the quiet dignity and utter desperation of his character. Young Smit-McPhee isn’t quite as effective, displaying only the young boy’s innocent naïveté.

A nearly unrecognizable Robert Duvall (“Four Christmases”) has a nice moment as an elderly man who gains some sympathy from the sensitive boy.

The main flaw at the heart of “The Road” lies in the father-son dynamic. This relationship should be utterly absorbing, but it never seems fully developed.

But like Mortensen’s character, “The Road” displays a quiet dignity as it probes for the best of humanity even in the worst of times. (R) Rating: ***1/2

* Avoid at all costs
** Only if you're bored
*** Good movie
**** Well worth your time
***** Be sure to see it

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