Viggo Mortensen is no stranger to playing heroic characters but in The Road his character is a far cry from the wandering King Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. Mortensen here only plays a man known as simply the man as formal names are never given. Mortensen seems like the perfect fit for such moniker considering he has a definite everyman quality to him, and this is further helped by his naturalistic style of acting. This average man though is not in any average situation though as some cataclysmic event occurs suddenly throwing the world into a post-apocalyptic landscape where few people survive, the plant life and most of the animals seem dead, and many of the human who still survive are cannibals who hunt down other survivors and sometimes even use them as if they were cattle.
There are a few scenes set before the man must wander the world with his son, the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee). These are shown a few times early on in the film as we the Man and his wife, the woman (Charlize Theron), are first dealing with the event while the woman has to give birth to the boy. Mortensen is excellent in these few scenes by showing a different man than we see in the scenes set in the present. Mortensen portrays the Man much gentler and is exceptional in the way he suggests the lack of the current experience in the man. Mortensen properly gives us the man before the end where we see perhaps the man who had been living a good life. The scenes could have easily seemed unnecessary to the film as a whole but Mortensen uses them brilliantly as establishes so well the man who was of the old world and not the horrible one we see him existing in for the majority of the film.
Mortensen also powerfully creates though the beginning of the deterioration through his personal loss in one scene where the woman basically resigns herself from life and decides to leave the man and the boy just to go out into the darkness and just die somewhere. Mortensen is absolutely heartbreaking in the scene as the man tearfully asks her not to go. What makes the most so particularly moving is because Mortensen gives us the futile nature of the man's pleading. Mortensen plays it as the man knowing she is going to leave and that there isn't anything he will be able to do about. In the moment Mortensen makes the loss completely palatable despite the brevity of these scenes. We get very little of the relationship between the woman and the man and the scene comes relatively quickly. Mortensen is able to put forward that love the man shares with the woman and realize the better times while barely seeing making the loss something truly felt.
The rest of the film takes place in the bleak present where the man moves from place to place with his son in attempt to try to find food and some sort of refuge. Mortensen is excellent in these scenes as we see the years in this environment in his face and every physical mannerism of the man. Mortensen's eyes are absolutely haunting in every scene as we basically see what the man has seen within them. There is the history of loss in his expression as we see happiness is something far from what has every been found within his face. The man is slowly dying throughout the film from an unknown lung related ailment that only worsens as the film proceeds. Mortensen's portrayal of this as well as simply the ravages of starvation is harrowing to witness. There never seems to be any acting seen here, Mortensen manages to bring us this man in this situation.
Mortensen very importantly creates a very effective dynamic with Smit-McPhee as the son as he makes the man have a very particular relationship with his son, particular because of the world they must live in. On one hand Mortensen brings the needed warmth in the role and it always makes it obvious that the man loves his son deeply, even though Mortensen does well in often subtly suggesting than always coming out with it in a needlessly overt fashion. The reason that is so important is because the man is suppose to betraying to make it so the son will be ready to face what's left of the world even after the man's death. Mortensen does not make it a distance but rather very honestly portrays the attempts to make the son ready like any good father making his son ready but with far different circumstances. There is no coldness in it, but Mortensen gives the right bluntness in the father's attempts at teaching his son.
Mortensen never wastes a moments in their interactions as he brings such complexity to the relationship. Two of the most heart wrenching scenes are one slightly calmer and one more intense due to the predicament they find themselves in are when the father is trying to show the son how to commit suicide with a gun. The first time Mortensen shows it to be an unfortunate somber remainder to his son, and there is always that extra effort that Mortensen suggests in his performance, which exemplifies that the father does not want to do this, but he simply must. The other is when they believe themselves to be possibly caught by cannibals, and the man for a moments believes he must mercy kill the boy. It is an unforgettable scene because Mortensen makes the horrible nature of the moment only ever ring truthfully as his performance only reflects what any good man would be going through in such a moment.
Mortensen is incredible in realizing a man who tries to hold onto a decency even though it is extremely difficult to do so. Mortensen is fantastic in any moment where the man must set aside his morals for the moment due to the fact he must protect his son. This includes an early encounter with an encounter with an obvious cannibal. Mortensen gives a very moving portrayal by so authentically creating the desperation in the man as he must basically force himself to kill the man as there is no other way. When trying to avoid this Mortensen is so great at showing that the man tries every ounce to handle the man in a peaceful way, and once again shows that extra effort he must put forward to deal with the situation. Mortensen never makes the man an otherworldly hero, but rather very powerfully making him a man who is giving every ounce himself to protect his son and be one of the good guys.
The film thankfully has a reprieve of sorts where the man and the boy happen upon a survival bunker that is stocked with supplies. The scene allows them to leave their current situation and sort of return what would likely be their normal relationship. Mortensen is terrific in this scene because we briefly see many of the fears and paranoia that had been slowly growing rest. It is a wonderful moment as Mortensen let's even more of the warmth and love the father has to give come out. Mortensen in this scene shows even more that has been lost by showing what has been gained by this comfort. Mortensen again carefully does not overplay the optimism instead beautifully suggesting but never going too far as the man's unfortunate suspicions come to play once again when they hear people who seem to be following them.
This is a complete triumph by Viggo Mortensen as he carries the film upon his shoulders. Although John Hillcoat's direction realizes the apocalypse in all its cryptic detail it is Mortensen that makes the story resonate through his depiction of the man. Even though the story may take place in a fictional time and place this will never be found in Mortensen almost unbearably honest performance. Even though he is only a man and is named so simply as man there is nothing simple about Mortensen's man. He completely realizes every facet of this man's struggle with his son and the final moments of the man's life are devastating to witness because there is not a false breath in Mortensen's work. This is monumental performance by the great Viggo Mortensen and I have no hesitations with calling it his very best performance.