"The Road" is a prophecy of a blasted world. The unchanging sky resembles hammered lead. The trees are leafless, lifeless, crashing to earth like poleaxed cattle. Animals have vanished. Cities are rubble fields. Houses are empty. Humanity has been reduced to survivalist stragglers, some of whom are amoral, cold-blooded killers. The majority died in the unnamed apocalypse or by suicide. Desolate freeways stretch nowhere. The end is near.

John Milton described hell as "darkness visible." That is the grim, mesmerizing world that director John Hillcoat creates here. Based on Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel, this is a frontier story where Zane Grey meets Samuel Beckett. The living envy the dead yet they carry on because they must.

"Cannibalism is the great fear," says our narrator, The Man. Which fear? To fall prey to some Donner Party or to turn cannibal oneself? Viggo Mortensen is gripping, inhabiting his role with tamped-down intensity. He conveys a gnawing sense of emptiness and futility side by side with indomitable courage.

Moving across the corpse of America, he must keep alive "the fire" of faith and humanity. He must protect his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is about 8 and has never known another world. He passes along a slender moral code: Good guys don't eat people. Just in case, he carries a gun and two bullets. If not for the boy, you feel, he would have already used one of them.

The film is spare and pure and serious. It is pitiless and close to greatness. Every image -- brooding hills, musty Victorian furnishings in a derelict mansion, the dark hellmouth of a highway tunnel -- carries weight. The editing is jagged, flinch-inducing.

Against those constant threats are primal gestures of paternal love. There are flashes of colorful days when the man had a wife (Charlize Theron) who played the piano, held his hand, bore him a son. Memory is a refuge in this harsh world. Hope is an extravagance.

As they walk to the seacoast -- things might be better there -- the travelers encounter armed gangs and opportunistic thieves. They also meet an elderly man (Robert Duvall) who uses his age as protective camouflage. The Boy wants to keep him. From his father's example and from somewhere in his soul, he has learned compassion. He reminds The Man of an earlier, higher level of human development.

The film is largely a duet between Mortensen and Smit-McPhee. They are riveting. Mortensen is as gaunt as a concentration camp prisoner beneath his shabby clothing. McPhee is not so starved; the father always feeds the son first. As you watch the interplay between these two you understand why The Man keeps pushing forward. He has not lost the world. It's right beside him, stumbling forward, holding his hand.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186