Held back from an intended 2008 Oscar season release for the usual vague "editing" reasons, director John Hillcoat and writer Joe Penhall's adaptation of the highly-fêted Cormac McCarthy novel The Road has finally revealed itself to the world, and as expected, "editing" turns out to be a code word for "we tried really hard to make this not completely, agonisingly depressing, and failed".

Thank God. McCarthy's novel (which I dissent from the majority in finding to be nowhere near his best work; it's quite good, but the Border Trilogy and Blood Meridian knock it into a cocked hat) is nothing if not outlandishly bleak, and softening that up would have been an insult to the very concept. For the uninitiated, the story is that something never explained happened about ten years ago, that left the world - at the very least, the United States of America - as a sunless wasteland in which the best thing one could possibly hope for is to die at a moment and of a cause of one's own choosing, rather than to slowly and painfully starve to death as the scant number of remaining food supplies dwindles down to nothing (neither animal nor plant life has survived in any reasonable volume), or to be butchered by one of the countryside's roaming bands of cannibals, who are as likely as not to violently rape you before they start hacking you into niblets. In this desperately charming landscape, a man (Viggo Mortensen) is traveling with his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to the Atlantic coast. There's no real reason why: they haven't heard some compelling rumor about the Last Fertile Place in the World, or about an enclave of good, non-cannibal people who have formed a Last Vestige of Civilisation. It just makes sense that moving in one direction is as good a thing to do as to stay in one place, and there's no reason to assume that the coast will be any worse than where they start out.

Post-apocalypse movies are like catnip to me, but a lot of them have a certain bizarre fantasy overlay: Mad Max and its sequels present an essentially mythological scenario, not unlike a medieval Arthurian romance with imaginatively re-designed cars standing in for horses and magical beasts. Those films in turn influenced virtually everything else in the subgenre, and those few which mostly avoid copying George Miller in part or in total, like Children of Men, are still much more inclined to depict the blasted-out future as a place of undisclosed marvels, though they are typically very unhappy marvels, and feature predominately action-adventure narratives. Both the book and the movie of The Road are much nastier and pragmatic: the world ended and everything went to shit, and thus things are shitty. This is the one point at which the movie surpasses its source: for while McCarthy is an evocative writer, Hillcoat and production designer Chris Kennedy do a fantastic job of visualising the author's mise en scène in a way that avoids the usual trap of adaptation, that the reader can think of things more impressive than the filmmaker can ever achieve. Partially because the setting of The Road is not at all impressive, but small and disgusting, the film far outdoes anything I pictured while reading: if the suffocating grey palette of the film (excellently captured by Javier Aguirresarobe, making up for New Moon) wasn't bleak enough, the broken look of all the remnants of human habitation that are scattered throughout the film's dead forests certainly would be.

On the other hand, the film doesn't quite have the same emotional wretchedness of the book, which I think to be an inherent limitation of how McCarthy drafted the characters in the first place: the man is a desperate survivor whose only goal in what remains of his miserable life is to keep his son safe at any cost, feeling as he does that the boy is the last tiny spot of good in all the universe. That's a hard thing to depict cinematically without resorting to overly descriptive dialogue, and Hillcoat and Penhall are obliged to so resort. This is done with some degree of skill and class (Mortensen's performance helps immensely), but ultimately "tell don't show" narrative never hits as hard as the other way 'round.

By no means do I mean to thereby imply that The Road lacks for emotional heft; I only mean that it's not up to the standards of the book, and though I usually do not like to compare movies and their sources this directly, the adaptation is so tremendously faithful in this instance that it would be uncommonly hard not to. Of course the film has an emotional impact: it's one of the grimmest end-of-the-world movies in recent memory. The visuals alone are a bit shattering, to say nothing of the presence of guileless child who is so completely acclimated to the world around him that he has never seen a beetle or a dog, and who finds a can of Coca-Cola to be an unfathomably exotic treat.

The best part of the movie that isn't ultimately taken from McCarthy is Mortensen: he's turning into quite the indispensible actor these days, ever since David Cronenberg figured out that he was a psychotic genius. He plays his part in The Road as a man who has, over the course of ten deeply unbearable years, become rough and wild, more like a mother bear than a father human, and it is as haunting a performance as I have seen this year: it finds Mortensen with his eyes turned up all the way to crazy, a hunted look, perpetually terrified even in his safest moments. If there is anything in this film that truly embodies the raw savagery of this post-apocalyptic environment, it is Mortensen's eyes. I do not hold with those arguing that Smit-McPhee holds his own against his older co-star, though it makes me feel wicked to say mean things against a child actor. He's not bad, really, but there are a lot of moments when he just seems disaffected, like he was glad to remember all of his lines and nothing else.

Considering how great Hillcoat's The Proposition was, I was perhaps expecting a bit too much from The Road as a work of formal elegance: though it is without doubt a magnificent piece of craftsmanship (Aguirreasarobe's contribution to the film's mood is not to be denied), I do not have the same sense that each individual composition was designed so precisely, nor is the editing timed as perfectly. The mise en scène does most of the heavy lifting for the visuals, I guess I mean to say, which isn't a problem except insofar as I know that Hillcoat can do better. I also know that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who wrote the scores for both films, can do a hell of a let better: the music is just about the one thing in The Road that actually annoyed me, being a bit too emotionally leading and once or twice drifting into enough sappiness that it actually made me feel less than just the visuals would have.

So it's not a slam dunk. And given the pedigree of the source material, the talent of the filmmakers, and the impeccable quality of the last McCarthy adaptation (that would be the awe-inspiring Coen brothers film No Country for Old Men), it really does feel like it ought to have been, but no matter. There's not going to be another end-of-humanity film anytime soon that socks you in the gut like this one does, and for that reason alone it would have merit; the fact that healthy portion of what remains actually does work pretty damn well is enough to make it one of the better films of what has been a pretty snoozy prestige film season so far.