A man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) struggle to survive an unspecified extinction event. They hit the road to the sea, while scavenging for supplies and avoiding the roaming gangs, cannibalistic or otherwise. In flashback, we see that the boy had been born shortly after the catastrophe and his mother (Charlize Theron) had succumbed to depression and killed herself by walking into the woods to freeze to death, so the father could retain two bullets for him and the boy.
In the present, the man shoots an attacker and is left with only one bullet. Exploring a house, they find people locked in the basement, destined to be eaten. When the cannibals return, the man and his son hide. He is just about to shoot the boy when some of the captives escape and distract the cannibals. The man and the boy escape and hide all night, listening to the captives screaming.
Further down the road, they discover an underground shelter full of canned food. They feast on the supplies and wash themselves. But they hear the sounds of people and a dog above, and the man decides to keep moving. At the boy’s urging, they give some of the food to a nearly blind old man (Robert Duvall) they meet on the road. Having reached the coast, the man swims out to search a wrecked ship. They boy falls asleep on the beach and the supplies are stolen. They chase down the thief (Michael Kenneth Williams) and the man takes everything from him, including his clothes. The boy is so distraught at this that the man returns the clothes and leaves some food for the thief.
As they pass through a ruined town, the man is shot in the leg with an arrow. He kills his attacker with a flare gun, leaving his body with his sobbing wife. Getting weaker, the man abandons the cart he can no longer pull. The man dies of his wounds and the boy is left alone on the beach. He is approached by a stranger (Guy Pearce), his wife (Molly Parker), and their dog, who have been trailing them for some time. They take the lad under their protection.
The film was directed by John Hillcoat and written by Joe Penhall, based on the 2006 novel by Cormac McCarthy. It received numerous positive reviews and 22 nominations by various groups, including Best Cinematography at BAFTA. If you are not sobbing uncontrollably, or at least profoundly depressed, after watching this movie, there’s something wrong with you. Many post-apocalyptic movies are rollicking adventures or triumphs of human endurance, but this one is just horrific, as the end of civilization would actually be. They should show it to people during climate-change pledge drives. This is what will happen to your grandchildren. It was filmed among the abandoned or decayed rust-belt ruins of Pennsylvania, and in places destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and Mount St. Helens.
Viggo Mortensen slept in his clothes and starved himself to play the role. He lost thirty pounds. He knew he had succeeded when he was thrown out of a shop in Pittsburgh as a homeless person. He took two years off afterwards to recover. When the boy’s hair was washed in the stream, it was so cold he really cried. They had to do it a few times because the damn sun kept coming out and making things look pleasant. Kodi Smit-McPhee got the role because his father sent an audition tape of himself teaching the boy how to commit suicide. The father was cast as a cannibal. The boy and Viggo Mortensen bonded by eating crickets together. There were scenes in the book that were filmed, but not released, including a baby roasting on a spit. It’s hard to believe this film came out the same month as Zombieland.